How to reduce shift work employee turnover - tips from 24/7 control room designer

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If you face control room operator retention problems, causing your company to invest vast resources in rehiring and training operators for complex 24/7 processes, careful planning and attention to human factors and ergonomics can break the cycle.

"Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work"

We have interviewed many operators and visited control rooms around the world. It is not unusual to see operators who are neither engaged nor interested in their environment. It tends to be these plants that experience the highest turnover or the biggest production losses due to unplanned shutdowns. If the operators are not engaged and not interested then it is likely boredom sets in, tiredness follows and mistakes are made - at this point job satisfaction is non-existent.

We need to take our thinking a little into the future and  to capture imagination of the next generation of users replacing the retirees and make them stick around. The next generation, affectionately known as ‘Generation G’ or ‘Generation Gamers’  expects something quite different from work than their older peers.  The best in class companies will strive provide a work environment which is likely to deliver an experience that the gamers are both used to and enjoy.

We can derive this importance of the workplace from Hertzberg and the Motivation-Hygiene theory. In terms of hygiene, positive characteristics are associated with job satisfaction. It follows that to create an environment of job satisfaction the employer must first create a facility which provides the tools for good work conditions.

Perhaps Aristotle foresaw the situation when he said: "Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work".

Designing for happier control room operators

Industries around the world are starting to wake up to the importance of an individual’s wellbeing in the workplace. There is plenty of research on the dangers of being seated for periods which may be seen as too long (see article in British Journal of medicine). This can also lead to tired unmotivated employees and has been found to significantly contribute to sick leave, turnover and early retirement which can have a very serious impact on the bottom line of any business.

The users’ environmental concerns have long been the focus of ABB and the control room design company CGM, member of ABB Group. Together we have developed an industry message using the Extended Automation System 800xA and the Extended Operator Workplaces (EOW).

Some of the in-built features which help maximize productivity, reduce operator stress are:

  • The EOW automatically changes all ergonomic functions to preset settings at login
  • Ergonomic features are automatic therefore will always be active
  • Changes slowly and unnoticeably over time to reduce fatigue
  • Height of desk, monitor board and large screens can change to user preferences
  • Distance to the monitors and the large screens can be optimally set
  • Angle of the monitors can be changed to a user’s preference
  • Both the down light and up light brightness and color temperature can be changed
  • Can set sound conditions for both PA speakers and direct sound speaker system
  • Sound suppression systems are built into the EOW unit
  • Personalized temperature settings are available for normal and upset conditions
  • Single Keyboard function to operate all the HMI workplace
  • High Definition screens to lessen the load on the eye whilst viewing

Smart Ergonomics

Human nature dictates that when humans become familiar with their environment they tend not to worry about the optimized configuration and tolerate the current. The impact of this has been seen over many of the past incidents and may go some way to explain the rather short operational lifespan of Control Room Operators.

CGM are further developing the EOW for the ‘next generation of users’ and they are calling this new development ‘Smart Ergonomics’. Ergonomics and Human Factors can best be described as ‘The applied science of equipment design, as for the workplace, intended to maximize productivity by reducing operator fatigue and discomfort.’

The new Smart Ergonomics of the EOW means: screen settings can slowly and un-noticeably change during the course of time to prevent eye strain and fatigue. Sitting down, as mentioned above, is a major contributor to fatigue and longer term health issues, therefore a lot of work is being done around helping the operator move during his/her period at the system whilst still providing the ideal viewing angles. An operator does not need to stand for long periods to really improve their overall wellbeing.

The new EOW, with its Smart Ergonomics, has the ability to promote more alert and motivated operators leading to safer operation and less downtime. By making these features automatic at login in the EOW we estimate that the ergonomic functions will be used 75% more by the operators compared to the traditional manual settings. Manual adjustments to smart ergonomic features are of course still possible.

If we take into account the human factors and ergonomics when designing the facilities, we are likely to keep the control room operators engaged, excited, alert and - on the job.

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