Managing 24/7

Designing a Control Room

Imagine a control room in the wee hours of the morning, lit only by softly glowing computer screens. Controllers turn up the heat as their core body temperature drops, keeping the room warm and toasty, and lean back against their padded, high backed chairs to monitor the screens.

Sounds cozy, doesn’t it? Almost relaxing? Unfortunately, “cozy and relaxing” is probably not the word you want to use to describe a 24/7 control-room that is monitoring millions of dollars of equipment and the safety of your employees.

Let’s take a look at some of the common problems inherent to control room design, and some standard solutions for improvement.

Human Factors Engineering

The scenario we just described is a classic illustration of a lack of human factors engineering in control-room. Why are people sitting in the dark? Because of the glare and reflection on the computer monitor screens. If the room lighting doesn’t wash out the screen, it will certainly cause discomfort, eye strain, or even chronic headaches.

Yet, we have the technology to make glare resistant screens that would allow full room lighting. But, unfortunately, the day engineers who design these systems don’t realize the physiological realities of working night shifts or rotations. And our purchasing agents are not collectively specifying that vendors supply systems that are glare resistant. So, this critical feature is often not built into the system.

Every shiftworker knows the challenge of staying alert and focused at 4 a.m., but how many of them know that their alertness is being endangered by the very environment that was designed to prevent distraction? In the control room (a job sometimes described as 99% routine, 1% sheer terror) even a slight lapse in vigilance can become costly or even dangerous.

Still, many managers consider worker alertness a variable factor that they cannot control. This may have been true at one time, but it is not true today.

The Ideal Control-Room

We now know, as a result of extensive research and real-world experience, that there are nine “switches” that regulate human alertness and fatigue. They are: mental activity (i.e. a sense of danger, interest or opportunity), muscular activity, time of day on the circadian clock, sleep-bank balance, ingested nutrients and chemicals, environmental light, temperature, sound, and aroma.

The best control room environment would be designed to activate and stimulate as many of these switches as possible, which would keep workers at their peak in terms of safety and performance. Unfortunately, too many control rooms we encounter pass the “cozy and relaxing” test and not the “alert and safe” test.

Control-Room Test:

Next time you’re in your control room ask yourself this simple question: At 4am, would this room help make me tired or help make me alert? Think about the 9 switches of alertness. For example, what are the lighting levels like? Is the room cold or warm? What sounds occupy the room?

If after evaluating the control-room, it looks like there’s room for improvement than it’s probably a wise idea to develop a plan and/or design concept for your control-room. It’s critical that aspects of alertness stimulation be included in your plan.

Before you do anything… To ensure lasting acceptability, and make sure your workers will use the new design, be sure to educate your operators and managers to develop consensus and support a new work environment plan. After all, installing a great lighting system and glare resistant screens isn’t useful if someone shuts off the lights every night anyway! This is a critical step if old habits and traditions are to change, so that the benefits of the optimized work environment can be achieved and sustained.

Need Help with your Control-Room?

CIRCADIAN has helped many companies evaluate their current control rooms, develop plans for improvement and monitor the installation. Our experience with this process will help you identify key issues that might otherwise be overlooked. If you’d like more information on this topic, please contact us.


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