Compliance Consulting Personnel Process Safety Training

Improve Plant Safety with Virtual Simulation

Jane Alexander | September 21, 2017

The man with glasses of virtual reality. Future technology conce

New technologies and engaging training methods are helping workers better understand and strongly embrace the principles of plant safety.

Regardless of ongoing advances in technology, including the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), that are changing plant environments, maintaining safety remains a constant priority. Some might argue, though, that technological advances and automated processes have increased the potential for plant accidents.

According to Schneider Electric’s Dr. Ian Willetts, while that argument might hold up in some scenarios, several factors are involved in plant safety. A vice president of Schneider Electric Software (, Lake Forest, CA), Willetts shared the following insight on those factors, including best practices and modern tools for ensuring safety in today’s industrial operations.

Does automation reduce safety?

“On one hand,”  Willetts said, “technological advancements are making plants smarter by automating dangerous tasks and reducing human involvement. But, they’re also creating safety issues.” Consider the growing numbers of plant control loops that are managed by a single operator. As a result, two issues emerge:

• The volume of accident instances increases across a broad span of single-person operations.

• The dwindling ability or time for the one person responsible for the multiple, automated control loops to manage abnormal situations.

Couple this greater complexity of tasks with the growing mentality of “if we are increasing our automation, then there is less need for on-the-job training,” and it’s easy to understand the growing concern around plant safety. As Willetts put it, “Operators are increasingly being treated like airplane pilots who observe and manage an automated process, hoping to be sufficiently responsive to handle an issue quickly, and correctly, when it arises.”

OTS systems can demonstrate a full range of operations, including normal and abnormal situations, in simulated, yet safe environments.

OTS systems can demonstrate a full range of operations, including normal and abnormal situations, in simulated, yet safe environments.

What about the human factors?

Human error has always been a major contributor to plant accidents and safety issues, and one that existed long before new technology and automation. “This type of error, “ Willetts observed, “is usually related to a lack of operator skills or, at times, carelessness, and will typically come in the form of a mistake or from instances such as ignored measurements or alarms, policy violations, or noncompliance.”

The desire to stay competitive, he said, also includes an increased pressure on workers to be more productive, which can lead to slips or lapses of attention, trying to cut a corner, skipping a routine, or miscommunication.

The potential for human error, of course, can never be completely erased. In Willett’s view, that very fact makes a more compelling case for why ongoing training to maintain plant safety is critical.

But human error is only one of the factors in that value proposition. “Another human factor affecting the safety of today’s industrial environments,” he said, “is the significant demographic transformation taking place.”

In industrialized nations, this demographic transformation is fueled by growing numbers of aging workers who are retiring and taking their knowledge base with them. It’s a particular dilemma for the process industries. On the flip side, in many developing countries, a different demographic profile, which is often referred to as the “youth bulge,” has become an issue.

According to Willetts, both of these demographics are creating a demand for ways to effectively assimilate newer, untrained workers more quickly than ever before. “And safety,” he said, “is a major component of this training.“

Virtual-reality experiences can help improve collaboration among plant personnel and better prepare them to avoid future safety incidents.

Virtual-reality experiences can help improve collaboration among plant personnel and better prepare them to avoid future safety incidents.

What to do?

To combat factors such as automated plant-control loops, human error, and aging or emerging workforces that can lead to safety incidents, Willetts encourages sites to adopt a “safety by simulation-based learning” mentality and leverage advanced tools such as operator-training-simulator (OTS) systems (see sidebar, p. 21). He points to ongoing benefits these tools offer, including, among other things, improvements in accident prevention, best-practice adoption, and adherence to rules and procedures. They also lead to greater understanding of how changes in a plant (or plant design) can affect safety and how to properly communicate safety issues.

“Plants will only continue to get smarter,” Willetts explained. “Plant-safety practices need to be just as smart.”  EP

The Case for Virtual Operator Training Simulators

Dr. Ian Willetts, Schneider Electric Software

What can be done to address the potential for injury in today’s industrial settings? Improved education and training must be elevated in importance and implemented as a standard routine. This training and education should demonstrate the challenges faced on the job, ensuring that today’s workforce will be prepared to make the right decision—on the fly, whenever and wherever necessary—to maintain the highest possible safety standards. But how do we ensure high-quality, modern training and educational practices that meet the needs of digitally transformed plants?

Enter operator-training simulators (OTS). With an OTS system, personnel benefit from virtual plant replicas with highly realistic graphics that can closely mirror their actual work environments. These systems can be embedded in design-, operation-, and corporate-training practices, creating a framework that allows companies to methodically produce sound safety training for their plant staff.

An OTS can demonstrate the full range of operations, including normal and abnormal situations, in a simulated, yet safe environment. This enables operators to identify and understand potential red flags that may arise in real-life scenarios. Examples include simulation of a fire incident at a plant, a sudden appearance of a toxic vapor cloud, or simply, how to respond to a loss of power or other plant upset. Simulating these types of situations in a lifelike way prepares operators to handle potentially life-threatening and intense situations should they ever occur in the plant.

Modern OTS training systems can also immerse users in a virtual-reality (VR) experience that creates an environment for teaching control-room operators, maintenance teams, and field personnel to collaborate. Team and role-playing exercises can be taught and challenged, with the end result being a group of workers that is better prepared to avoid future safety incidents. Augmented reality (AR) adds instant access to new levels of data that can create a highly immersive training environment that has never existed before. What this means is that it is no longer considered a chore to read training manuals and take a test.

Some managers may run on the “it won’t happen to me” mentality, and assume that their operations are immune to safety incidents. That’s not reality. Safety incidents can occur anywhere, anytime, and often without warning. If and when they happen, the ability of operators to respond appropriately could mean the difference between a small inconvenience, a major production shutdown, or even loss of life.

Advanced VR/AR-enabled OTS systems are already modernizing the face of plant safety. They’re also poised to continue evolving and providing further benefits to plants as OTS and simulation-based solutions move to cloud-based learning-management systems with ever-increasing detail.

Ian Willetts is a vice president of Schneider Electric Software, based in Lake Forest, CA. For more information, visit


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