Focus On Error Factors In The Control Room Urged By Industry Veteran

November 2009 Vol. 236 No. 11

Charles Alday is a man on a mission to raise familiarity in pipeline companies of the human factors that can combine to produce extraordinary pipeline operations.

He carries a hard-won perspective gained from working 30 years with Colonial Pipeline in roles as diverse as utility man and construction worker to operations manager.

He was closely involved in investigations and changes the company made after its “organizational accident” at the Reedy River in 1996. He was a member of the Colonial team charged with the job of eliminating errors, spills, leaks and accidents. That work led to his devotion to the discipline of human factors. He says human factors studies is simply the study of the interaction of people with their environment, equipment, computers, procedures, and other people. He says the discipline of human factors is not well known in the pipeline industry, and he enjoys introducing new ways to improve performance.

P&GJ: What are some of the challenges you are working on today in reducing human error in the control room and controlling pipeline leaks and spills?
Alday: There is a proverb, Chinese I think, that one should “repair the roof before it rains.” I believe it is much better to prevent errors and accidents than to be forced to address the serious consequences after a major accident occurs. Through the years, I have observed that most companies prefer to wait until the roof is beyond repair. As a result, there are much greater costs to the company.

One of the things I have noticed, through the years, is that companies do not want to pay adequate attention to human error. When they do, the savings in product quality costs, reducing unscheduled shutdown, and preventing equipment damage are significant.

The primary tactic used for human error is “blame and train.” Training is not always effective in reducing human error. I believe in providing people tools for the toolbox, then teaching them how to use those tools to reduce errors and prevent leaks.

A very real challenge is the issuing of a final rule from PHMSA that is directly related to reducing human performance that might contribute to pipeline leaks and spills. This “Control Room Management” rule has specific requirements for pipeline companies with control rooms and controllers, as defined in the rule. Each company has to develop a “human factors management plan” that meets requirements for addressing human fatigue, defining roles and responsibilities, providing adequate communications between controllers and others, managing changes properly, addressing shift change procedures, managing alarm systems, and ensuring training and procedures on these issues and others. This rule will likely be issued in its final form by the end of 2009. I have been working on those issues since the late 1990s, when I was a manager at Colonial Pipeline Co.

One challenge I am working on is helping people understand what a human factors management plan should include. There are other human factors areas that can improve operations, even if they are not in the rule. Sometimes companies have a “compliance only” mindset, when they need to have an operational excellence mindset. The plans do not have to be complex, but they need to demonstrate a commitment to excellence and increased controller competence.

A key driver for the rule is human fatigue. How does a shift worker deal with fatigue? As a shift worker for many years, I know that fatigue is inherent when working rotating shifts. There are times when life off the job interferes with resting away from the job. A shift worker does not usually sleep enough hours and the hours slept are not good quality. A company may not have enough qualified controllers, and others have to work overtime. I remember working about 500 hours of overtime several years in a row, and that definitely caused me cumulative fatigue. The challenge is getting companies and controllers to recognize that obtaining adequate rest is a shared responsibility.

P&GJ: Please provide a description of the magnitude of the challenge the industry is facing.
Alday: How many pipeline companies in the United States have control rooms? Under the rule, some companies will have several control rooms. One presentation from PHMSA states the rule will apply to over 900 pipeline companies. There will have to be a written plan with required documentation, processes, policies, procedures, training, and other items. There are costs in money and time for the development and implementation of the plan. When the final rule is issued, there will be a deadline for compliance and implementation.

How many pipeline controllers, as defined in the rule, are there working for these companies? Some companies have only one controller on shift; others have many. Each controller and their managers will be involved in elements of the plan. The PHMSA estimates that there are over 5,000 controllers and managers. Companies may have to increase the complement of controllers, in order to reduce the effects of fatigue.

The magnitude of the challenge, in economic costs, varies depending on the source. Government estimates of the costs are much less than industry estimates. It was interesting to read the comments on the proposed rule. Most respondents thought the rule was unnecessary and only partially applicable to their operations.

P&GJ: What public and private agencies are involved in mastering the challenges?
Alday: Preventing accidents caused by human fatigue has been on the “Most Wanted List” of the NTSB for years. I think the NTSB is correctly concerned with the effects of human fatigue in all modes of transportation. The pipeline industry was the only mode that had no regulations about preventing human fatigue. The NTSB believes that controller fatigue was a contributing factor in several major pipeline accidents. Congress passed “The Pipes Act of 2006,” which required PHMSA to develop regulations that addressed fatigue and other issues.

PHMSA has been working with industry to develop ways to address human factors in control rooms. Other organizations who are involved include API, AOPL, SGA, AGA, APGA, and INGAA. Representatives from pipeline companies, other government agencies, academic institutions, scientific companies, vendors, and consultants have worked together on committees and special projects. One of the best current practices I know of is the Gas Control Interest Group, sponsored by SGA. This group is developing a framework document to help natural gas pipeline control room management with their human factors management plan.

API has held numerous forums and workshops with pipeline companies to address human factors. An API industry working group developed a Recommended Practice(RP) for Control Room Management, and another is now developing a RP for Alarm Management. I am part of the working group on Alarm Management.

P&GJ: What is the status of the overall effort and what is the next key step.
Alday: The next key step is the issuing of the final rule by PHMSA before the end of 2009. One document from PHMSA stated an issuance date of Nov. 27, 2009.

P&GJ: What will be the measure of success?
Alday: The measure of success, to me, is that no pipeline controller or other employees makes an error and causes a pipeline accident that harms a member of the public, another employee, or damages the environment. That should always the ultimate measure of success for a pipeline company. Other measures of success will be the development of a human factors management plan that improves safety and operational performance, then complies with the regulations.

P&GJ: Where did you grow up and what brought you into the energy industry?
Alday: I grew up in Georgia and Mississippi. My father worked first for Southeastern Pipeline, and later for Colonial Pipeline Co. As a result, we moved several times when I was a child and teenager. When I finished high school, I began working pipeline construction on stations, tank farms, and mainlines. My first job was as a laborer building a pump station for Colonial Pipeline. Later I worked in “dope gangs,” as a welder helper and straw boss, and as a pipefitter and instrument fitter. In 1974, I began work with Colonial Pipeline in Nashville, Tennessee.

P&GJ: What was the career path that led to your current position? When did you become interested in your discipline as a career?
Alday: I was a utility man, construction worker and construction inspector, Operator A, and Senior Operator, Chief Operator, Operations Manager, and Operational Excellence Manager during my 30 years with Colonial Pipeline. After the company had the “organizational accident” at the Reedy River in 1996, I was a member of a team whose job was to eliminate errors, spills, leaks, and accidents. That work was what led to my involvement and interest in the discipline of human factors. Human factors, in my simple way of looking at the work, are the interaction of people with their environment, equipment, computers, procedures, and other people. The discipline of human factors is not well known in the pipeline industry, and I enjoy introducing new ways to improve performance. The programs we developed and implemented at Colonial Pipeline included people-centered Operations Philosophy, Conduct of Operations, Lessons Learned programs, and the use of Operational Excellence teams

P&GJ: What are some activities you enjoy sharing with your family away from work?
Alday: My wife and I enjoy spending time with our grandchildren, Olivia and Logan, and with our sons and daughter-in-law. We enjoy movies, reading, and travel. I work with youth in student ministry; something I have been doing for over 30 years. I also enjoy hiking, running, and learning about new subjects. I am an adjunct professor at Kennesaw State University, teaching Business Ethics.

P&GJ: During your travels, have you had any experiences that stand out?
Alday: Our favorite family trip was to Vancouver, BC after our sons were grown. The four of us just enjoyed being together, experiencing being in a different country. I have also been fortunate to travel to several other countries. What I have noticed is that people the world over are more similar than we are different. I think the world would be a better place if we remembered that all people want to be safe, to be respected, and to have meaningful work.

One stand-out experience that did not require travel occurred in 2009. Our company led eight weeks of operations training for 16 pipeline controllers of PetroChina Pipeline. The blending of two different languages, cultural habits, learning preferences, and recreational activities was a great opportunity! It was one of most enjoyable experiences of my career. I am planning a trip to China in 2010 to speak at the Langfang International Pipeline Exhibition.

P&GJ: What are some important lessons you have learned that you would like to share with others?
Alday: Here are a few:
1. Develop your own mission and goals for life.
2. Take responsibility for your own failures. Don’t blame others or circumstances.
3. If you become a manager, be a servant leader.
4. Pay close attention to the quality of your work.
5. Never stop learning.
6. Always be searching for better ideas and practical knowledge.
7. Have great expectations of yourself and those who work with you.
8. Be forgiving of self and others when you do not meet those expectations.
9. Do things that you do not want to do. You will be better for it.
10. Always remember: what I do affects others and what others do affects me. We’re connected!