Saving Precious Time

Technology enables Lower Colorado River Authority to improve work on equipment

LOCKOUT/TAGOUT or "red tagging" (also known as clearance tagging) is the critical procedure followed to ensure that equipment at the Fayette Power Project's three coal-fired generating units near La Grange, Texas, are safely shut down and energy sources isolated to prevent accidental release of stored energy, making it safe for their maintenance staff to begin working on equipment.

The Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) owns the Fayette Power Project along with the city of Austin, Texas, which co-owns two units. LCRA operates the project.

"Since our equipment can contain stored electrical energy, air or water pressure, or super-heated steam flowing through piping -- often at temperatures above 1,000 degrees -- lockout/tagout is a very serious and meticulous process," said Virginia Moreno, LCRA's senior safety representative.

The Fayette Power Project (FPP) issues more than 3,000 red tags per year split between its five maintenance crews, each of which contains between 10 and 14 workers. Once the machinery requiring work has been identified, FPP's safety tagging system software generates a boundary list of associated equipment that must be locked out (including valves, electric breakers, etc.) in order to ensure that the machinery about to be worked on is safely isolated.

"When machinery needs work, the operating staff notifies the maintenance staff that red tags have been placed on the equipment," said Douglas Plummer, business process improvement manager at LCRA. "A maintenance worker will then walk through the area with a member of the operating staff to ensure that all the appropriate equipment has been correctly isolated, red tagged and the isolation verified prior to any work starting.

"Once the verifications are completed, the maintenance worker then has to go back to the clearance station to confirm that all equipment has been correctly shut down by manually signing the master control document that lists all the isolated equipment. When you consider that FPP is spread out over acres of property, travel time could be considerable."

With approximately 2,200 employees, Central Texas-based LCRA generates and delivers electricity, provides water supplies and flood protection, and manages the waters of the Lower Colorado River basin. LCRA, a non-profit conservation and reclamation district created in 1934 by the Texas legislature, also owns and operates water and wastewater utilities, provides public recreation areas and supports community and economic development. LCRA provides reliable, low-cost utility and public services in partnership with its customers and communities, and uses its leadership and environmental authority to ensure the protection and constructive use of the area's natural resources. Always looking to improve efficiency, LCRA's research shows that more than 60 percent of the time taken to issue red tags is due to the travel time between the field and the clearance station necessary to ensure paperwork is signed and properly authorized.

"Although, it would be much faster to simply call in via radio to confirm all safety procedures that have been completed, there would be no way to verify that such an event had actually happened. This raised concerns by the plant's safety coordinator that in the event of an injury or accidental release of stored energy, there would be no way to prove that someone truly had called in," Plummer said. "It was clear that the only way to make the lockout/tagout process more efficient would be to develop an alternative method that would combine the speed of a simple call with the accountability of the present procedure."

Innovative Authentication
LCRA understood that the best way to make the lockout/tagout process more efficient would be to eliminate the considerable travel time of the present protocol, but was equally aware that this could only be achieved if it did not decrease the maintenance staff's ability to positively authenticate themselves to the clearance station. The business process improvement project team conducted a search for such a solution, which led it to Philadelphia-based IT security provider, Pegasus Technologies.

"LCRA knew it would have to create an electronic signature process to ensure it could positively verify signage and approached Pegasus Technologies with the problem," Plummer said. "Pegasus Technologies suggested the use of CRYPTOCard's RB-1 credit card-style token, which would be able to provide both the positive user identification LCRA required for validation purposes and the ease of use that would make it simple for maintenance workers to positively authenticate themselves to the clearance station from their field location," Plummer said. "Pegasus Technologies' innovative proposal met LCRA's criteria for positive authentication, fit within the budget, provided the required level of safety and security protection, and had the added benefit that it would require minimal training for maintenance staff."

The authentication technology couples something in the user's possession (in this case an RB-1 PIN-pad hardware token) with something the user knows (PIN), to make it simple for users to positively identify themselves. The credit card-sized RB-1 PIN-pad token has its own display screen, does not require maintenance staff to carry any additional device, and because the technology uses the familiar ATM-style protocol, it eliminates the user resistance usually associated with installing an additional layer of security by reducing training to a quick demonstration.

Easy to Use
LCRA began its pilot program on Aug. 25, 2004, that included 12 maintenance workers, the safety coordinator, red tag coordinator and a couple of IT staff. Each was provided with a pad token.

Completed on Nov. 11, 2004, the pilot, proved successful. Whereas maintenance staff had previously had to spend considerable time traveling to and from the clearance station, now they simply had to radio or phone in once they had reviewed the red tags, switch on the token and enter their PIN. The credit card-style token then generated a random one-time password displayed on the token's screen, leaving the maintenance worker simply to read the password over the radio or phone to the operations staff at the clearance station to verify his identity. Additionally, because the password is different for every call, it does not permit other workers to use another person's credentials at a later time.

"It was certainly smart of CRYPTOCard to supply free evaluation tokens, as the maintenance staff were so thrilled at the ease of use and travel time saved that they did not want to return their trial devices," Plummer said. "The pilot certainly proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the token system was considerably more efficient -- eliminating unnecessary travel to enable staff to spend significantly more time on actual maintenance of the machinery."

Two months after the pilot was completed, the technology was up and running. LCRA took less than a day to install and integrate the server with its existing system, and has now completed training the 200-plus employees that will use the two-factor authentication technology.

"The intuitive design means that it takes one short session to train a new user, and LCRA now has approximately 60 maintenance staff using the PIN-pad token, as well as numerous operation and administration staff," Plummer said. "Also, as the tokens have replaceable batteries and are extremely robust, they can be used indefinitely despite the tough treatment they receive in the field."

The Compelling Business Case
With the installation of the card's authentication technology, Pegasus has enabled LCRA to more than meet its efficiency requirements, and Plummer is quick to point out that the power company has an extremely compelling business case for using authentication technology.

"LCRA has been able to save 60 percent of the time that was previously required to manually sign off/on the lockout/tagout process," Plummer said.

With an average of 15 minutes travel time to the clearance station and more than 3,000 red tag clearances a year, LCRA estimates that it has saved 450 worker hours per year, which translates into a payback time of approximately seven months.

"And that is pretty impressive when you consider that LCRA's payback threshold for our investment projects is five years," Plummer said.


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