Designing Control Rooms for Humans

When the Science of Ergonomics Enters the Control Room Safety and Efficiency Soon Follow

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At this point a graphics style guide can also be developed , but will require good human factors engineering involvement to specify foundation requirements that are needed to guide important decisions. These decisions are based on questions such as: "Will the background color for screens be a lighter gray, or will a more traditional color such as black be used?" This is important for lighting design to ensure glare is not an issue. The last decision to make at this stage is to determine if the design will incorporate large off-workstations, safety systems, communication systems, hardwired panels, etc.

Step 3–Specify Console Requirements

With personnel and equipment requirements known, designers can determine console requirements. This is one of the main systems requiring ergonomic design considerations. Companies commissioning new control building and control room facilities must decide on how much investment they want to put into the console. The choices are to continue to use one of the instrument vendors' off-the-shelf consoles, use off-the-shelf office furniture or use off-the-shelf console furniture that is designed for the control room.

Only one of these solutions will meet the international ergonomic requirements and encompass the physical, anatomical, anthropometric, physiological, behavioral and biomechanical capabilities ins such a way as to provide good workplace layout and design, e.g., working postures, materials handling, line of sight and repetitive movement. Currently the U.S. regulators do not insist on human factor compliance, however, they have tried to pass, and will continue to promote legislation in this area as the current annual cost for shift worker fatigue exceeds $77 billion.

Step 4–Specify Console Layout

Once the numbers of consoles are known, and the size and equipment requirements are specified, the layout of the consoles in the control room needs to be specified based on communication and collaboration requirements. This is determined by studying the process interactions and identifying common utilities that will cause domino effects. Locating the console operators in close proximity will promote, but not guarantee, improved communication and collaboration.

The ISO 11064 standard Part 3, Control Room Layout, provides guidance on workstation groupings, spacing requirements and location of visual displays for best line of sight.

This is an undeveloped topic for industrial control rooms. Recent research has suggested that trying to provide a traditional chair and table solution is doomed to failure due to the wide variation in operating styles, and how people handle stress and fatigue. It is becoming apparent that flexibility is the main requirement. Being able to vary posture by perching, lounging or standing are good options to supplement the more traditional right-angle seating. With the introduction of "power" napping who knows were console design may go?

The most important factor in console design is not only to meet the ergonomic standards, but to provide a practical work environment that looks good, reduces stress and fatigue, and helps operators perform their tasks efficiently.

The simple, low-cost solution for control room users is to specify an instrumentation vendor's off-the-shelf solution. But a few years down the road, legislation might check this common-sense tactic, forcing users to upgrade to a more ergonomic solution, somethnig that could be expensive, difficult and disruptive to implement. Any savings realized by going for the low-cost solution will be lost in the upgrade. The user company should also consider the yearly costs related to shift-worker fatigue and the impact of human error on profitability. What looks initially like a cost effective solution is really a poor investment.

Step 5–Secondary Requirements

The next step is to identify the secondary users of the control building. They may include engineers, supervisors and others who support activities such as training. Questions, such as whether or not issuing work permits is to be done in this building or at some alternative facility must be addressed. Once these issues have been identified and resolved the room's specifications can be determined.

Step 6, as required by the ISO 11064 standards, is to work with users to determine the control room's parameters, such as space required, its intended use, and its adjacency requirements identified as either preferred, neutral or negative adjacency. During this phase designers should determine the ergonomic requirements of each of the individual rooms in the building. Lighting, noise and traffic flow should be specified as well, and include addressing reverberation issues and specifying windows, walls and ceilings.

Step 7–Functional Requirements

This is where a knowledgeable control room architect needs to be involved in understanding and extracting details for heating and ventilation, air circulation, specific lighting levels, and electrical/piping and communications equipment requirements.

The International Ergonomics Association says "ergonomics (or human factors) is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance." This is exactly what the standards are calling for; hence, industry has to respond by re-training instrument engineers or employing trained professionals with HFE experience to design a control room. It's not just an instrument panel anymore.

Read Also: Human Factors: Planning & Design of a Control Room

The IEA continues, "Ergonomists contribute to the design and evaluation of tasks, jobs, products, environments and systems in order to make them compatible with the needs, abilities and limitations of people."

This is the motivation. Control rooms are about the people in them, not the equipment. "Domains of specialization within the discipline of ergonomics are broadly the following;" says the IEA website ( "Physical ergonomics is concerned with human anatomical, anthropometric, physiological and biomechanical characteristics as they relate to physical activity. (Relevant topics include working postures, materials handling, repetitive movements, work related musculoskeletal disorders, workplace layout, safety and health)."

These are the required skills needed to design a console. It is not a task to be left to an instrument engineer or an architect.

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