What is alert fatigue?

Alert fatigue, sometimes also called alarm fatigue, is a well-recognized condition that occurs when someone hears so many alerts or alarms that they stop responding to them appropriately.

Alert fatigue can affect anyone who is bombarded with alerts, including workers in a cybersecurity Network Operation Center who receive alerts about a security issue, healthcare workers who are sent alerts from a patient’s medical device or manufacturing employees who grapple with alerts about plant anomalies and/or equipment failure.

Alerts are meant to warn of an emergency situation and stimulate an emergency response. But it’s not humanly possible to remain in a state of high alert for long periods of time. Too many alerts require employees to experience this “high alert” situation on a repeated basis, leading to alert fatigue.

For example, someone who receives one alert a day about an anomaly in the plant is likely to pause their work and respond swiftly to deal with it. But someone who receives an alert every hour might still be dealing with the previous “emergency” when the next alert sounds. The more alerts someone hears, the more likely they are to experience alert fatigue.

Why does alert fatigue matter to process manufacturing plants?

Alert fatigue can result in: 

  • Stressed-out employees, due to high adrenaline levels which cause them to feel overwhelmed.
  • High burnout and churn rates as employees feel unable to cope with the stress.
  • Real part, process, and/or safety issues going undetected when employees turn off alerts to reduce being overwhelmed with alerts.
  • Employees using arbitrary means to decide which alerts to respond to, since they can’t deal with them all.
  • Workers becoming desensitized to alerts, causing them to fade into the background noise and no longer produce any response at all. 

Once employees are unable to respond appropriately to alerts, there’s a high risk that problems go overlooked and develop into serious incidents which can threaten employee safety, cause significant environmental harm, and/or result in costly damage to the plant.

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How can process plants reduce alert fatigue?

Lower the incidence of false alarms

False alarms, or false positives, can exacerbate alert fatigue. The employee who repeatedly responds to an alert that turns out to have been false, or relating to an issue of little importance, will quickly cease reacting to alerts. One option is to adjust the sensitivity of alert triggers; another is to use predictive analytics and machine learning (ML) to improve the accuracy of alarm systems.

Expand the workforce

Sometimes alert fatigue can be a sign that your employees are struggling to keep up with the workload. By adding to the team, the burden of dealing with alerts will be spread more widely, lowering the stress on each individual.

Include context information

When alert messages contain contextual data from machinery logs, parallel sensors, or other Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) devices, it makes them far more actionable. This way, employees are able to close each alert quickly, thereby lessening the time and energy needed to deal with each one.

Classify alert urgency

When employees are flooded with too many alerts, they have to make snap decisions about which ones to prioritize. Introducing a classification system that includes information about potential plant downtime related to each alert, for example, helps process engineers allocate resources more effectively and eases the stress of sifting through them.

Reduce the total number of alerts

The best way to combat alert fatigue is to lower the number of alerts that employees have to respond to. Precognize does this by using human-plant knowledge to create a domain model, so the alert system can identify anomalies more accurately and produce fewer, more relevant alerts that relate only to serious issues.

How do process plants benefit from preventing alert fatigue?

When process plant employees suffer from alert fatigue, it can allow serious safety and process issues to grow undetected, potentially causing serious damage to the plant, employee safety, and environmental health. Addressing alert fatigue increases safety across the plant, advances plant efficiency, raises productivity and boosts the bottom line.