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October 12, 2015

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Making greater use of data

The data an organisation already possesses is among its most precious assets, but its full potential is rarely exploited. Here Helen Balmforth explains how existing data can be used in new ways to inform better decision-making and address a range of health and safety issues.

In recent times, ‘big data’ has become something of a buzzword. Organisations increasingly have access to vast volumes of data from a variety of sources. The theory is that by intelligently combining, analysing and interpreting this data, new insights can be obtained that can help an organisation to make better, evidence-based decisions, improve efficiency and reduce costs.

One area in which the smarter use of existing data streams is proving beneficial, not only at an organisational level but also nationally, is health and safety. And, as the expert data analysts and mathematical modellers at HSE’s Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) can demonstrate, it is possible for businesses of any size to maximise the value of whatever data they own to gain new benefits from it.

Data for asset life extension

The equipment, infrastructure and assets used in industry are subject to the effects of age, wear and tear and other external factors, which can eventually lead to their deterioration or failure. For businesses operating in potentially high-hazard industries such as oil and gas production or nuclear-powered electricity generation this is a key concern.

Many assets, from pipelines to offshore platforms, are capable of safe use beyond their original design lifespan, but this is dependent not specifically upon their age but rather their condition. Unscheduled shutdowns due to asset deterioration or failure can have a significantly adverse financial, health and safety or environmental impact. Yet a business has to weigh this against the considerable cost of maintaining or replacing ageing assets.

Selecting the most appropriate data upon which to base the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that inform asset inspections, maintenance schedules and health and safety regimes is of fundamental importance to the effective management of ageing and life extension activities.

HSL’s expertise in this field has helped businesses in industry sectors such as petrochemicals, utilities and oil and gas to review their KPIs and identify the best data with which to measure them. These KPIs can then be used to determine the future point at which ageing assets are most likely to fail, helping a business to maximise their value by replacing or repairing them at the optimum time.

Nuclear safety by numbers

Britain’s seven nuclear-powered electricity-generating stations further illustrate data’s invaluable role in the management and life extension of ageing assets. These power stations, known as Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors (AGRs), provide up to a fifth of the electricity consumed in the UK and have been in operation for up to 40 years.

Uniquely, these reactors have a core made from tubular graphite bricks. These safely control and sustain the uranium-fuelled nuclear reaction needed to generate electricity, while enduring operational temperatures in excess of 500OC.

Over time, the ageing effects of irradiation and oxidisation can eventually cause the graphite bricks to lose mass or crack. It is vital to ensure that any deterioration of the graphite bricks does not compromise the safe operation of the power station. Checking the condition of these bricks is, however, both too expensive and too hazardous to be undertaken manually.

By using data gained from reactor inspections, core graphite samples and other sources, and in collaboration with materials experts at the universities of Manchester and Birmingham, HSL’s mathematicians have developed an independent and novel mathematical modelling approach, which can provide realistic simulations of the behaviour of the graphite core over time.

This is succeeding in providing valuable and timely predictions of graphite degradation including shrinkage, weight loss and cracking. These reliable predictions will make an increasingly important contribution to assessments of the length of time for which each of Britain’s nuclear AGRs can remain in safe operation.

Workplace ill-health trends

The sophisticated statistical, analytical and mathematical methods used by HSL can be applied to any type and volume of data, which means that the benefits they provide can be reproduced for organisations of any size and in any business sector.

Take, for example, an initiative to reduce sickness absence and workplace ill-health: something that costs the UK economy an estimated £14.2bn in 2012/13 (source: HSE statistics). By analysing data from sources such as workplace risk assessments and employee absence records it is possible to identify trends, which reveal the underlying causes of ill-health in a particular work environment.

Good KPIs (or data) help determine the optimum time for repairs or replacements on oil rigs

Good KPIs (or data) help determine the optimum time for repairs or replacements on oil rigs

It is also possible to make projections on how these may affect an organisation in the future. Armed with this information, HSL can advise on strategies and solutions to address workplace health issues, protecting employees and saving businesses the unnecessary costs associated with loss of productivity and staff absences.

The power of unified data

In today’s information-rich society organisations typically have access to multiple sources of data of different types and formats. The ability to unify and interrogate data from disparate sources to create valuable new intelligence is something that can benefit any organisation, and a field in which HSL’s data analysts have already achieved significant success.

By devising a range of innovative data analytics techniques to match and link existing datasets held within, and across, different government departments, HSL has created into a versatile and reliable suite of tools, collectively named ‘Find-It’.

Since its development, Find-It has been used by HSE to identify and prioritise inspections of businesses most at risk of contravening health and safety regulations. The ability to interrogate data amalgamated from various sources via a single, intuitive user interface can deliver considerable benefits. Within a short space of time, Find-It’s adoption by HSE contributed to significant improvements in efficiency and better deployment of resources, achieving substantial financial savings within a year.

The beauty of the innovative data analytics concepts which underpin Find-It is that they can be tailored to work with all kinds of data, enabling any organisation – whether public or commercial, large or small – to enjoy similar benefits and business improvements.

No IT investment required

By now it should be clear that maximising the value of existing data is not dependent upon how much data is available, but how it is used. What’s truly impressive, however, is that to gain the advantage of these expert data analytics no additional investment in computer hardware or software is required. Nor does the raw data need to be changed in any way in order to unlock its benefits.

Using sophisticated mathematical processes and proven statistical techniques it is possible to mine and analyse data to reveal previously hidden links and
brand new insights into how an organisation operates, how it can be improved and how the challenges it faces can be resolved.

From helping businesses to identify and prioritise risks to your business to safely managing ageing assets and extending their operational life, ignoring the power and cost-effectiveness of data analytics to solve a range of health and safety issues simply doesn’t add up.

Helen Balmforth is head of spatial intelligence and knowledge analysis at HSL


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