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Safety by design - 24/7 control room perspective

How smart ergonomics and attention to human factors can help improve uptime and safety in industrial plants and other continuously controlled processes

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Often overlooked safety improvement areas

Operators' tasks within 24/7 control rooms have been largely automated, leaving operators to spend the majority of their time as system supervisors and not system controllers. As a result, operator attention, reaction and effectiveness are often overlooked as factors that have direct impact on uptime, production output, quality, and safety of industrial plants. If the situation deteriorates, an operator is left to understand inconsistent interfaces from a multitude of sources or data where there is not enough information to take appropriate corrective action.

Industries have for many years been focusing on the automation process rather than the human that makes the critical decisions when something out of the ordinary occurs. It has been found, after countless accidents and incidents, some including fatalities, that it is the actions (or sometimes the lack of action) of the system users who more often than not are the actual pre-cursors to the events actually occurring.

In the US alone it is estimated that over $20Bn (or 3% – 8% of industrial output) is lost due to unplanned downtime. As such the “Human Factor” element is an extremely important aspect that, if addressed, has the potential to recover up to 25% of lost production in the US alone. (Source: Bill Hollifield, Dana Oliverr, Ian Nimmo, and Eddie Habibi, HMI production handbook)

It is with these accidents and losses in mind that industry and international standards are now starting to demand considerations around Human Factors. Research from entities such as Center of Operator Performance and the ASM Consortium has led to guidelines for designing control rooms and operator displays to suite the needs of the operators, to promote effectiveness, improve comfort, and present simplified information displays that are easy to understand.

Guidelines are part of the initial design phase and demand  owner/operators to continually demonstrate their moves in order to retain operational certification. The Human Factor components of ISO, EEMUA and NORSOK are now being discussed well in advance of protocols and hardware.


Trevor Kletz
""We can't enable people to cary out tasks beyond their physical or mental abilities... but we can reduce the opportunities for such slips and lapses of attention by changing designs or methods of working"

"Safety doesn't come out of the box"

Systems need to be designed around people rather than the other way round. Technologies such as ergonomics, display design, HMI (human-machine interface) graphics, alarm handing can help to reduce the occurrence or effects of human errors or delayed actions in abnormal situations. When these can be combined with training simulators and advanced maintenance technologies, improvement in plant safety will soon be noticeable along with significant overall performance improvements.

In a well-designed physical environment operator can simulate the passage of time each day or call attention to a specific type of event. For example, lighting at 3 AM may be more subdued than at 1 PM, and lights may take on different color during emergency. When these kinds of changes can take place, operators are more alert and able to handle the stress of abnormal condition in the plant.

Giving careful consideration to the facility and user experience will also attract the next generation of operators - known for being great problem solvers (skill gained from gaming) - whilst improving the standards of the previous generation.

Designing for safety

Control room ergonomic factors have a huge effect on the ability of operators to stay alert and engaged over long shifts.

By reducing the clicks needed to act on an alarm, having one single keyboard that controls all computers, monitors, communication tools needed and an interactive large screen overview to easily get a general idea of the situation at hand; the efficiency of the decision-making improves. 

e.g. When working with ABB's Extended Automation System 800xA and its Extended Operator Workplace (EOW), all monitors and large screens are interactive and the operator can seamlessly move from one monitor to the other with the cursor or using the keyboard. The EOW is connected to three different client computers and each computer is connected to three screens of the EOW-x3 so that the operator may work against different parts of the process or choose to zoom into and focus on one part or one alarm. 

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. Further developing the EOW for the ‘next generation of users’ leads to the new ‘Smart Ergonomics’ concept.This means: screen settings can slowly and un-noticeably change during the course of time to prevent eye strain and fatigue. A lot of work is being done around helping the operator move during working shifts whilst still providing the ideal viewing angles.

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.

This is a big difference between the reality in many control rooms today, where often each computer is connected to one monitor with its own keyboard and mouse. Some monitors are only used for CCTV monitoring meaning that the operator only can use this monitor after something has gone wrong. If the operator has to move around and work on many different computers, monitors, keyboards and sometimes systems; this will add unnecessary time on alarm handling and will create ineffective work and might compromise safety or continuous operation.

One single avoided shutdown or incident justifies the efforts of creating a better working environment offered by ABB's Extended Operator Workplace optimally integrated in innovative control room layouts.

Protect your greatest assets by focusing on the heart of your organization - control room facilities that enforce safety by design, helping operators stay alert and take fast and correct decisions!

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