Bridge the gap between operations & engineering
Bridge the gap between operations & engineering
Bridge the gap between operations & engineering

Work organization

Most operators work in teams. There are tasks to be done in the control room, and tasks to be done in the plant outside, often in a 24/7 shift system. In addition there will be daytime activities as well, like management, maintenance and meetings.
Any Human Factors contribution starts with a Task Analysis in order to get insight in human operator tasks. This information is the key for a good estimation of operator workload, communication requirements, and on how to organize all tasks efficiently.

For example, technology enables real-time remote process control, thus reducing local manpower and related costs. However, this requires a careful redesign of operator jobs. Which tasks remain local? Are there any new tasks, such as communication? How many objects can be controlled or supervised by a central located operator?

Avoiding human error

Being human, operators will make mistakes. Accidents happen. Sometimes these issues are the result of engineering errors or project management decisions. One error we can pinpoint is an insufficient recognition of the Human Factor in the system; an error which can be avoided. We recommend not to focus entirely on minimum requirements related to health and safety risks. Also look for positive effects of an investment in HF, such as the optimal use of the human resources, high productivity, avoiding off-spec products, less errors, and well-performing, happy and motivated operators.

The irony of automation

In process control, there is a choice in level and degree of automation. Over half a century we already know that operators having very few tasks, i.e. waiting for the unexpected, doesn’t work out well. It leads to boredom, failing situational awareness, etc., just at the moment it is needed the most. This is known as the irony of automation:

  • designer errors can be a major source of unknown and unexpected operating problems;
  • the person who tries to eliminate the human operator still leaves him to do the tasks which he cannot think how to automate;
  • an automatic control system is put in because it can do the job better than the operator, but yet the operator is being asked to monitor that it is working effectively;
  • simulator training is not effective, if you cannot simulate the yet unknown operating problems.

Summarizing: in the end you will always need to rely on human process operators. As a consequence, we better enable the operator to do a good job, providing adequate tools, an interesting set of tasks, and a balanced workload. Use the human operator to its full potential.

Projects often concern combining several local control rooms in one control centre. Return on investment is calculated on the basis of staff reduction versus project costs. Staff reduction is possible, if there has been spare operator capacity at the local control rooms, or tasks can be automated. This needs to be established before embarkin on the investment. Effects of automation need to investigated. However, engineers tend to be a bit optimistic about it.

Once the number of control room operators is established, we are able to determine the number of operator consoles, space requirements, the number of systems/screens on the desks (and thus console size), and so on. It will also result in a draft layout of the control centre, reflecting relationships between users: the work organization.


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