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24/7 Operation Control-Rooms are Starting to look like Mission Critical Operation Centers!

“Technology Alone Cannot Replace the Human Factor – Not Today”

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Under the best of circumstances (in the right plant) the automation system should steer the process to the best operating condition and keep things humming along. The safety system, is there to prevent incidents like a release or burst. Between these safety layers is the control room which is part of the control loop, it is also a safety layer required to prevent and manage abnormal situations, to bring the process back to that smooth hum. During abnormal events, this is a critical time for the operator to act quickly and accurately. Time is of the essence, and a failure in any of the safety layers can be the end of an entire facility and reputation of an entire corporation. (remember the James Reason swiss cheese image, yea that one)

Most shift workers in the control room have a common problem. The work station, displays, alarms, consoles, screens, and control room environments were designed in the wrong order (what!)

Part One: How did we drive off into a ditch (people drink and drive everyday, not because driving is hard but cause we made it so easy)

DCS console purchased with pre defined screens (not ergonomic).

All alarms priority were set to Priority 1, High, or Critical (What does that tell an operator)?

More screens were added over time (it sure got worse for the operator).

DCS became software based and you could have as many screens as you wanted. (Woohoo)

Displays were built using P&ID’s with black backgrounds to make bright colors pop out. (Epic Fail)

Too many colors, too many screens, too much data on each screen made it impossible to detect important but very hard to detect changes on the overlap and stacking screens that were climbing above the console. (What is happening, I’m going to get buried by alarm paper or these damn monitors some day)

The operators turned the lights off because of the black backgrounds caused glare issues and eye strain. (Fatigue raises its ugly head and the API issues the 755…most say, what is the API755, huh?)

Sleeping in the control room became a real problem. (Operators were seen as the problem, they never considered the design of the user interface or environment, the money was damn good but most people hated the job)

Part Two: The Culture, well It Became What it is Today (Not ideal but we are making it work…God please take the wheel)

Screens became overwhelming so operators requested more alarms (why not, I need info, send it to me, I’m watching all the alarms anyway – they are all critical, remember?)

The alarm system was used for information that the operator needed, the operator did not want to navigate through 20 displays to find information, so she asked for alarms. They were cheaper then changing displays. (I’m keeping costs down, look at me go)

Operator’s were completely reactive and this was costing billions of dollars per year (like driving a rental car as fast as you could while switching lanes at an increasingly fast rate of speed until the car runs into the ditch (management makes adjustments in the technology, wait for it, yup, then the cycle just starts all over again).

Action required alarms got buried in a sea of alarms that were simply info but required no action (we call these alerts and they should not be alarms but you know that and you still have alarm problems, you know who I’m talking about).

Operators struggled to achieve a manageable state and they got a bad rap for being high maintenance cry babies (they actually get the job done, well done to all you hard working and retired operators out there! But what is the cost and risk to the company and the people when we don’t listen to what the operators really need)? $$$$$$$

Part Three: User Centered Design (hey, that’s the name of our company…it really is)

Over time, the problem got worse and worse – solutions to problems were addressed with technology without considering human factors / human limitations, or people behavior. (technology alone cannot replace the human factor, not today buddy).

This is why the Abnormal Situation Management Research Consortium was born and the recommendation was to design the displays and alarms first, we finally are getting some direction. (ISA 18.2 / ISA101 became real practices, now the regulators and safety organizations know you don’t have an excuse when a preventable incident is missed by the operator, they will compare you to best practice – we have seen this already and human factors is a very pop-u-lar subject during investigations right now – believe me…or don’t)

 Part Four: (take your manager to lunch on me)

If you have the workload for each operator scored and balanced (yea we do that for you) you will know exactly how many people & how many consoles you need to buy, so now you start to realize what the room size and ceiling height should be. (human factors, see this can be fun).

Now that you have the ergonomic displays, and action-only alarms, and the right screen sizes, number of screens, and displays designed using a task analysis and applying High Performance rules, you can put it all together in the console design. (now you’re designing for performance – you are doing this so you can measure results!)

Once you have the user interface right, then you can design the layout of the room and adjacent rooms following our rules defined under: Situation Awareness, Human/Operator Behavior, and Abnormal Situation Management a UCDS report! (we call this doing it right)!

Bad control room user interfaces and environments make it very hard for operators to predict problems, they simply react after the fact, when things are off normal or after the upset occurs, that’s today’s normal. However, today’s culture is finally starting to turn. We are seeing more companies interested in driving the car the way it was intended (straight to the destination, safely, and economically – EVERY TIME).

Anticipating deviations and preventing the bumps in the night are often managed after the alarm, meaning the problem is being worked on while the process is outside the normal operating envelope or nowhere near the desired envelope. Picturing this basically looks like a drunk driver moving all over the road.

Why are we finally starting to understand this concept? Well, your business leaders made a massive investment in technology and they still have a drunk or semi buzzed process. They normally blame the people, like hiring a new coach when all your star players are injured. In reality the blame is on the technology and our own failure to manage the risks, the human factor. Management is starting to realize they’ve hit a technological road block and so they are finally looking at the people and in some cases they are actually listening. (we have been contacted by more engineers and plant managers in the last year than ever before)

The human factor seems to always be the last thing considered instead of the first thing. This happens right when make a technical break through we jump right over the user and start the engine. With any technical leap, we have to first consider the user, and how we can manage the risks by designing with the user involved in the actual design process from start to finish – following the work processes, performing a task analysis, running through scenarios like start up, shut down, or returning to normal after maintenance, doing this until we get it right. (we’ve done this for 20 years, we can show you but then we have to kill you)

Do you know one of those people that does not get the concept that “human factors” and “user centered design” can get the car in the right lane running on cruise control? If done correctly, if you design for the users, then and only then, can you hold the drivers accountable, but first you need to listen, make adjustments, and then you will start saving millions of dollars every year. We can prove this.

Take that non-believer to lunch tomorrow. Ask if they can imagine driving a car with a touch pad, but the steering is located on one display, acceleration is on a separate display that you have to go to from the brake function screen which is on another display, and ask them to imagine lots of other buttons on each screen with lots of color, and don’t forget alarms that go off in the car every time he moves to the left or to the right 2 inches. (That would really suck but that’s what it’s like for our operators right now)

If you take a manager to lunch and record the conversation for me, I’ll buy your lunch! Feel free to visit or email me for a video to share during your next safety meeting. Good stuff!