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Control Room People and Behaviors

Control Room People and Behaviors

Operators need to be allowed to do what they are trained and paid to do and that requires that they be provided an environment that is void of as many unnecessary distractions and disruptions as possible, something akin to an air-traffic control center. When you see a press release or magazine article celebrating a successful start-up that includes a photo of an operator sitting at the operator console, the photo showed a bunch of monitors and keyboards plopped down on some computer furniture. What you didn’t see was that the control room was built like a box, and then someone was tasked with fitting all the people, equipment, supplies and kitchen into it.

An increasing number of companies are finding that carefully considering the human factor in operator interface and control room designs is contributing significantly to productivity and operational effectiveness. What sets these companies and their control rooms apart from the control rooms most of us are familiar with is that only the people who need to be in them are there, and every aspect of these control rooms has been carefully considered to ensure that the operator maintains high levels of vigilance and situation awareness.

These control rooms are not the place where maintenance stops by to get a stale donut and cup of coffee; not the place where contractors line up to get hot-work permits; not the place where people drop off order forms for their kids cookie, candy bar and trash bag sales; not the place where people congregate and talk about last night’s ball game. No, these control rooms exist for one thing and one thing only. to operate the plant as efficiently and productively as possible. These control rooms are the operators equivalent of an air-traffic control center, and until you embrace that mindset, your plant will never achieve its full operational excellence potential.
Be it poorly designed graphics, alarm overload or poor control room layout, there are numerous documented cases that validate that when human factors and ergonomics are left out of design considerations, operators are frequently and unnecessarily distracted, often resulting in needless injuries, equipment damage, off-spec product and so forth. Eventually someone realizes that plant operations are performing less than optimally, and a costly retrofit project is initiated.

The goal in designing a control room is to create a work environment that promotes the operators ability to maintain high levels of vigilance and situation awareness. Through the late 1970s, control rooms consisted of long panel boards with logically grouped recorders, controllers, indicators, switches, lights and alarm light boxes arranged to provide operators with a big picture of the process. Beginning in the 1980s, the introduction of distributed control systems (DCS) shrunk those long panel boards into fifteen-inch monitors. To compensate for the operators loss of the big picture, additional monitors were added, along with lots and lots of DCS-based alarms. It was not uncommon for a process plant to evolve from 150 alarm light boxes to more than 2,000 DCS-based alarms.

The distributed architecture of the DCS also encouraged control room consolidation, thus replacing face-to-face conversations between the control room and field operator with sometimes less-than-reliable radio communication. Greater physical distance also changed how supervisors interacted with the control room and field operators. Combined, these changes resulted in the creation of an entirely different control room environment, and it was done with very little thought about its impact on operational performance. What’s truly sobering is that twenty-plus years later, many of those same problems continue to exist in control rooms worldwide.

Operator behavior and effectiveness is effected by the work environment. When things are good, the job looks easy and boring. When things are bad…you hope the operator saw it coming, is already on top of it, and has the skills and tools required to save millions of dollars and the lives of coworkers, friends, and family. Why wait to find out if your operator has what it takes, act now and make sure they do.