Q&A with Hal Thomas

Hal Thomas, CFSE, serves as a Senior Safety Engineer at exida, a global leader in automation system safety, alarm management, cybersecurity, and availability.

With more than 36 years of professional experience, Thomas is widely recognized as an expert in functional process safety analysis, including safety instrumented systems and high availability automation systems. He helped pioneer the use of HAZOP, fault tree analysis, consequence analysis, LOPA, and the introduction of the SIS work process while at Air Products and Chemicals.

His principal work responsibilities have included: assisting and mentoring process safety and process control engineers in hazard identification, the use of fault tree analysis, LOPA, SIL assessment, and SIL verification; leading new technology hazard reviews; and writing standards and procedures to promote high quality and consistent results.

Thomas has served on a number of Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS) committees that have written guideline books, and is an original member of the CCPS Process Equipment Reliability Database initiative. He is a member of the CFSE Governing Board and is a Senior Member of ISA. He has authored numerous published papers.

What initially attracted you to the field of automation (and specifically your selected field)...and when was it? Was there any specific thing that triggered your interest?

When I graduated from Bucknell in 1974, I went to work for Air Products and Chemicals as part of its career development program. The position was designed to expose me to three different positions before I decided where to work on a permanent basis. At the time, I was ambivalent to controls, but it was my first assignment. After eight to 10 months I didn’t really want to leave, having found a niche. After interviewing a few other opportunities, I requested going permanent in Process Controls Engineering and the request was granted.

Please tell us about your current career responsibilities (specific position, company) and background, and area of specialty in automation

In 2011, I retired from Air Products and went to work with exida LLC, a consulting company, where I have been since. I am a partner and Senior Safety Engineer in the areas of process safety, functional safety, and industrial control system cybersecurity.

Could you tell me how you are currently involved with ISA? This would include your participation on the ISA84 Working Group 9. First, could you briefly explain what this Working Group does/its focus? 

I am currently involved in the ISA84 committee and perform liaison with the ISA99 committee on behalf of ISA84 as I co-chair Working Group 9, responsible for ISA-TR84.00.09, Cybersecurity Related to the Functional Safety Lifecycle. This technical report provides guidance on how to approach cybersecurity from the lifecycle approach that is applicable to safety instrumented systems.

With today's industrial automated control system networks being so integrated, cybersecurity requires an increased scope, essentially encompassing the controls network due to the potential common mode impact on the safety instrumented system. We are just beginning to start the work process for the third edition, as this area is constantly evolving. In addition, I participate in development activities for other S84 technical reports, especially TR84.00.02, 03 and 04.

How did you initially get involved in ISA?

I’ve been a continuous ISA member since 1976. In my first career at Air Products and Chemicals, I was fortunate to work in a department with supervisors (Ed Cooney and Ron Hillegass) who were heavily involved in the Lehigh Valley section of ISA. Everyone was encouraged to join and attend the meetings for which I have always been grateful.

What ways would you say ISA has benefited you?

In the early years, I went through the officer progression of the local section, learning how to better organize and run a small organization. During that time, I had the privilege to work with Jim Keaveney (former ISA President) and the result was the Kates Award for the Lehigh Valley Section. Networking with ISA was always a plus and continues to be a benefit to this day. In 1984 I transferred out of the controls group into corporate process safety, but have always stayed in touch with the controls community. Those were the days when the industry was transitioning from pneumatic/electric single loop control and hard-wired relay logic to programmable systems.

This transition initially had some downsides to process safety, as the new technology did not inherently lead to independence of control and protection as the old technology did. After an incident leading to a reactor runaway reaction where the controls and protection had been put into a PDP 11 computer, the chemical engineers in the process safety group determined that they could use a control engineer to help address this new technology. For the next 26 plus years, I provided the glue between process safety and the controls community. Being active in both ISA and the Center for Chemical Process Safety was highly beneficial to my process safety position as an in-house consultant.

It is very impressive that you recently received an award from ISA’s Standards & Practices Department relating to your involvement on ISA-TR84.00.09\, Cybersecurity Related to the Functional Safety Lifecycle. Do you have any reaction to receiving the awards?

I was quite pleased to hear of the award, but my real thoughts went to the team of people who helped with their sweat equity along with mine that was key to making it happen. I really owe them a debt of gratitude.

Also, why do you feel volunteering on ISA S&P Department committees important and valuable…both personally and professionally?

From a professional perspective, working as a volunteer on standards and guidelines has allowed me to stay at the forefront of technology in my areas of expertise, and has provided me with the opportunity to work with a number of high-quality, dedicated individuals over the years. These are people like Vic Maggioli, Dave Deibert, Angela Summers, Kevin Klein, Eloise Roche, and Dave Bennett, just to name a few. On a personal level, I have been blessed by my association with this industry and believe it is my responsibility to give something back where I can.

Do you have any advice or suggestions to young automation professionals entering the profession? Are there things that you have learned that you might pass on…to help them better develop their careers?

Find your passion and get involved. The rewards you get for volunteering allow you to help shape the direction of our industry. There is nothing more rewarding than that.

Always seek to understand the fundamentals, not the short cuts, and never believe you have arrived, as there are always things that need to be learned. You are either growing or dying, and if you find yourself in a position where you are not growing, it is time to move on and find another passion.