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Vista Projects

What if … You Could Take a Smart Phone On Site? – Geoffrey Cann

These translations are done via Google Translate

what if you could take a smart phone on site geoffrey cann

It would rock your world

By Geoffrey Cann

“Wow!”, exclaimed Kelly, the site supervisor at the large petrochemical plant. “Are you telling me that I can take my iPhone onto the site? It’s safe now? What can I do with it?”

Yes, Kelly, you can, IF you have the right phone AND the right case.

In a previous article I set out the transformative impact that an intrinsically safe, low cost smart phone case would have on the oil and gas industry.

As Kelly well knows, today’s intrinsically unsafe device holds the record for the longest running streak as the number one controllable site safety risk for the past ten years because it induces inattentiveness for the user, enables unauthorized site surveillance, and triggers (maybe) the next front page news refinery explosion.

But tomorrow, your smart phone will be viewed as the single most important safety enabler on the site, beating out hand rails on stairs, emergency wash stations, light bulbs, and lids on coffee cups. I bet you won’t be allowed on site without on.

As they are in our personal lives, smart phones are indispensable Swiss Army Knives of digital utility, and they will be highly welcome on oil and gas sites, petrochemical plants, and many other industrial sites besides.

Here are a handful of the ways that such a phone and case could benefit the front line worker.

De-bottleneck the gate and site access points

The utility of a smart device on site starts even before the gate. A device registered to a specific worker and enabled with some kind of bio identity (Face ID, or fingerprint) precisely confirms the worker, leading to faster gate access. Operators need only verify the device at the gate, like swiping a card to access a hotel room. There’s always been a risk that the person holding the device is not the device owner, but frankly, this risk has been shrinking as we have cyber tricks like 2 factor identification and pass keys.

Improve pre-shift work planning

Years ago, I worked on a project to introduce GPS and wireless technologies to a bus service that moved workers from work camps to job sites. Busing is very common in mining sites throughout Australia’s vast outback mining sector, and in Canada’s oil sands where workers live far from the mine sites. Buses take traffic off the roads, lower carbon emissions, and reduce the opportunity for road accidents.

Our vision was to transform the bus into an extension of the work site. The theory was that the workers could be more productive during the transfer to site. They could receive an alert about transportation status, be briefed on the day’s tasks ahead on the bus heading to the site on their mobile phone, take in a safety briefing, read the latest bulletins, and get a skills refresh. The site managers would know ahead of the bus arrival who had checked in and was on the bus. With that bit of data, the crews could be confidently organized before the bus arrived, saving mobilization time.

Provide dynamic site maps

Work sites are enormous. Just finding things and navigating your way around a site is a challenge. As a result, sites feature plenty of signage that help workers navigate their way. But signs are static, and job sites are dynamic. At any time there are crews carrying out maintenance and repair activities, with plenty of lock out gates and signs to keep crews safe. A static map is much less helpful than a dynamic map that shows all the points of site congestion and restricted access.

Geofence protected areas from trespass

Related to the use of maps is geofencing, a technique whereby the physical location of a mobile device can be overlayed on a map. Phones that appear where they are not supposed to be, such as inside a work site that is not permitted, receive a system alert (an audible alarm or a vibration or both) to alert the worker that they are in a dangerous work zone.

Enable access to data

The pandemic introduced everyone to the power of QR codes. You point your phone at the code and you can instantly access a live website or download a document. On a work site, a worker could use a QR code to access all of the live corporate and operational data about a piece of equipment, including its repair history, schematics, permits, tags, planned work on the equipment, safety instructions, parts list, and live operations.

Of course you need a phone to use them.

QR codes have not penetrated the industrial landscape because of the lack of intrinsically safe devices. These kinds of codes are tricky on industrial sites because the code itself needs to be kept clean and visible to be useful, free from damage or stains, and must adhere to various surfaces in harsh conditions. The user may need to get uncomfortably close to the code for the phone to read it. The ones used in restaurants are simply too small to be deployable on a big site.

Fortunately, QR codes for large sites are available, at a scale that the camera in a phone can read the code from dozens of feet away.

Send and receive urgent messages

Getting urgent news to thousands of workers who are widely spread out on a worksite would be greatly facilitated if those workers were all packing smart phones. It’s very much like when you travel by air, and the airline pumps you with a steady stream of updates about your delayed flight. Sure, the actual news is annoying, but at least you know where you stand, and you can start to take independent action to reduce the negative impacts of the delay.

Gain access to expert resources

Sometimes the front line worker is called on to carry out a maintenance task that is unfamiliar. Perhaps they lack experience with a specific tool, or a piece of equipment or its operating environment. Using a smart phone equipped with a camera, they could quickly set up a video call with a more experienced engineer to talk through the maintenance task. Bundle augmented reality with the phone and suddenly a computer image of the internals of a pump or a valve can be superimposed on the screen to bring added clarity to the maintenance task.

Now the green beans can perform work at almost the level of the expert.

Streamline work permitting

Maintenance work means shutting down parts of the facilities so that workers can safely enter confined, dangerous, or exposed work sites. Accordingly, operators have evolved complex processes and work practices for locking down a work site, verifying that the lockdown is in place, logging site access, and eventually returning the site to its operational state. Much of this process could be streamlined. Permits would exist in a single registry and accessible on mobile phones. Senior hands would not need to travel to the site to verify eyes-on that the site is locked down. Inspections of work carried out could be verified by using a camera.

Switch on smart tools

Almost all of the tools used by front line workers are dumb — tools do not have any digital technologies built into them. However, smart tools are available in a handful of specific categories, such as torque wrenches and pressure testers. These tools have little on-board computers and communications that connect with smart phones using Bluetooth.

The tool connects with the smart phone and records where and when the tool was used, who used the tool to do what task, and how was the tool actually used. This data provides a powerful audit trail that helps workers execute their work more professionally.

For example, over-torqued bolts can ruin threads and flanges, and cause costly repairs, so workers compensate by under torquing bolts. Some 30% of all bolts on new construction are under torqued, but managers don’t know which 30%. This forces a complete second sweep through the site to test every bolt. This task is completely eliminated with the combination of smart devices and smart tools.

Speed up shut-downs and turn arounds

The typical turn around is both kinetic (lots of activity happening at once) and dynamic (the nature of the activities are frequently changing as circumstances change).

For example, a crew of welders might find themselves on a site but without a permit to carry out work. Perhaps materials have been delayed arriving to the worksite, or a key worker who has specific skills is unavailable, or the previous task has hit an unexpected and lengthy delay. Absent guidance from the turn around managers, they have not much option but to tools down and await instructions. Normally, these instructions are relayed by radio, but with just audio, the instructions themselves are necessarily limited.

With a smart device in hand, coupled with clever analytics, each welder can receive the same instructions at the same time, perhaps tuned slightly for each welder. Work can be more swiftly rearranged and instructions and guidance more precisely targeted.

Improve worker safety

Sometimes large worksites fall victim to Mother Nature, in the form of fires, floods, and storms. In 2016, a forest fire almost incinerated Fort McMurray, a vast oil production region with multiple work camps and operating sites. Evacuating everyone safely was a priority, a task greatly assisted by mobile phones, information sharing about the fire progress, safe exit routes, and stranded personnel. With everyone on the site now packing a device, emergency workers will have a real time view into where people are throughout the emergency. No one will be effectively ‘off grid’.


This week I enjoyed the company of Amy, my seat mate on my return flight from Calgary. Amy was (probably still is) an Air Canada pilot deadheading to Vancouver to start her day. Throughout the flight she used a tablet to retrieve her upcoming flight plans, sign off her work, confirm her schedule, confirm travel logistics, pick up her messages, and handle light correspondence.

Finally, the highly paid oil and gas front line workers are about to get the same kinds of work tools as airline pilots.


Artwork is by Geoffrey Cann, and cranked out on an iPad using Procreate.

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