Some of the most startling news lately – especially for those of us who travel often – is the apparent pandemic of air traffic controllers falling asleep or otherwise failing in their jobs.
It’s a disaster waiting to happen.
With thousands of control rooms around the world managing the 24x7 processes of oil refineries, chemical plants, power distribution systems and other facilities that do important, hazardous work, you have to wonder how many other people are falling asleep on at the control panel.
That’s because industrial control rooms and air traffic control rooms are similar in a couple key ways: They are being run by an ever-decreasing number of operators, and often, they are working in spaces that haven’t been designed with human factors in mind.
It doesn’t matter who you are; if you work an overnight shift – particularly alone – there’s a good chance you won’t always be at your best. It’s worse if you’re in an environment that is uncomfortable, lonely and depressing.
Not much appears to have been written about air traffic control room ergonomics. But from what little is readily available, ergonomic issues have been cited as a factor in some serious air crashes, including the deadliest accident in aviation history – the 1977 collision of two 747s on a runway in Tenerife.
Human factors in industrial control rooms are better documented, but many control rooms remain outdated and poorly designed.
A big issue is that many control rooms are now staffed by fewer people than originally intended – with long physical distances between controls, and dedicated displays that aren’t visible from every point in the room. So as staffing standards change, such control rooms become less effective over time
These inconveniences may be tolerable when everything is a running smoothly. But when processes move out of a steady state – when the room needs to be at its peak – they can cause costly and dangerous delays.
Control rooms that work well are specifically designed to promote alertness, reduce stress and fatigue, and be relatively simple to use.
This is done through a range of features, including adjustable consoles and work stations, flexible displays, appropriate lighting, managed acoustics, and attention to the flow of personnel in, out and throughout the room. It’s also done with well integrated systems that allow personnel to quickly access information they need from a minimum number of interfaces – whether it’s service and faultfinding data, operator instructions, trends, device data or anything else.
Control rooms are the important safety net whenever anything goes wrong with an automated process.
Today’s increasingly sophisticated control systems may reduce the amount of work that control rooms need to do. But that’s the very reason why more attention now needs to be given to the way these nerve centers are designed. The moment that a control room needs to be at its peak is never scheduled in advance. But it’s something that can be planned for