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2020 AFPM Summit: The importance of great industrial communication

The importance of great industrial communication



Great communication in refinery operations is critically important. Anything less can lead to tragedy. The authors have personally experienced losing six close friends and refinery coworkers in a preventable accident. They, and hundreds of other industrial workers, might still be alive today had the right information been available, at the right time, to make the right decisions to perform the right actions. Given that safety and efficiency are the key economic drivers in refinery operations, to excel at both requires implementing and maintaining great refinery communication.

Great communication can be summarized in five rules:

  1. Provide clear and concise information/instructions. Keep the message simple and focused to the target audience. Use the language, technical jargon and acronyms clearly understood by the workers who carry out the instructions.
  2. Require feedback. Feedback is critical and works both ways. It verifies that the information was received and the instructions were understood and executed. It provides accountability by documenting the actions taken to perform an assigned task. Because the feedback process exposes participants to uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure, all feedback must be given honestly, received impartially, and acted upon professionally.
  3. Establish and maintain trust. Trust is all about building relationships through honesty and integrity. It provides consistent follow-through and accurate information at the right time. Trust is showing empathy to others with the understanding that different points of view must always be considered.
  4. Ask questions and actively listen to the answers. This means not only listening with your ears, but also comprehending what is being said. Giving your full attention to someone conveying an idea goes a long way in building the relationship and establishing trust.
  5. Clarify and summarize. Reflect back on what was communicated to you and summarize it to the speaker. Not only does this demonstrate that you are actively listening, but that you heard correctly and fully understand the message.

 Oil refineries operate continuously, across multiple shifts, where hundreds of workers and thousands of instruments generate millions of data values, process alarms, field observations and shift handover notes. The rules that apply to “peer-to-peer” communication also apply to workgroup and human-machine interfaces (HMI). For everyone to make the right decisions and perform the correct actions, they must have the right information from the right sources in real time. To achieve this, some additional rules of communication apply.


  1. Simplify. Overload and confusion occurs when too much or extraneous data is displayed without context. Understanding occurs when information is presented logically and in a timely fashion. This can be accomplished by filtering all data displayed on HMIs according to a user’s specific job or location. To further simplify and focus the information, additional filters designed for a specific function can be applied providing targeted data that is clear and easy to understand.
  2. Use multiple data sources. Information comes from many independent sources including SCADA, data historian, lab database, alarm console manager and rounds reports. By collecting and aggregating this information into a central communications platform, it can be integrated with worker input to provide context for actions performed and provide critical information in shift handovers.
  3. Provide flexibility. Workflows always control the reporting and, when conditions change, new reports must be quickly created or existing reports modified to capture these changes. Since each refinery is unique, report design must occur at the refinery level, independent of the service provider.
  4. Roll up, roll down and go sideways. Communicating across the various units and between multiple shifts can involve one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-one and many-to-many interactions. Secure and intuitive pathways must exist for the clear and easy transfer of information vertically, laterally and temporally.
  5. Build a historical core. Tribal knowledge is critical for helping new workers understand processes and resolve problems. Historical information must be easily accessible to all users, at any time and on any device.

Improving worker communication and collaboration in industry provides a wide range of positive benefits, including:

  • Increased productivity, safety and accountability
  • Lower absenteeism and turnover rates
  • Higher job security
  • Better employee engagement
  • Lowered barriers to language and cultural differences
  • Greater harmony across shifts as employees work closer together.

While no one product can collect and manage every form of refinery information and communication, there are enterprise-level platforms that integrate and communicate process and alarm data, lab results, rounds reporting, supervisor instructions, operator actions and end-of-shift reporting into user-customizable displays and shift reports. Many oil refineries and industrial facilities around the world are actively using these platforms to drive increased productivity, improve plant profitability and make them safer places to work.

Please visit the AIS Software booth in the virtual exhibition hall https://afpmsummit.vfairs.com/en/hall#booth-32817 to see how communications software, developed for and by refiners, can greatly improve your safety, productivity and bottom line. We will be online during the entire AFPM Summit to chat, answer your questions and set up online demonstrations of the Universal Tag Locator (UTL). Discover for yourself what a world-class operations management and worker communication platform can do for you, your employees and your shareholders.

For more information, visit https://www.aissoftware.com/UTL-2/.



RICK KAISER is a licensed Professional Engineer (PE) with 30 years of experience in the oil and gas industry. He has extensive upstream and downstream experience as an automation engineer in the oilfields of northern Alaska and as a mechanical engineer at refineries in Washington State. He works at AIS Software in Bellingham, Washington as a Product Manager for software solutions used at oil, gas and petrochemical facilities around the world.

ROGAN JONES is Vice President and Co-founder of AIS Software in Bellingham, Washington. He graduated with a BS degree from California Polytechnic Institute (Cal Poly) in Pomona and has spent the last 27 years in the oil and gas industry. Mr. Jones has extensive coding and programming experience across multiple industries, and has consulted with numerous clients throughout the world to improve operations management.

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