Human factors engineering delivers ROI

How to reduce human error, accidents and illness with user-centered work environments.

By Mary Ann Lane and Peggy Hewitt

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Human factors engineering (HFE), also called ergonomics, applies scientific theory, principles, data and methods to optimize human wellbeing to spaces, devices and systems for human use. HFE deals with how people and their environment mesh. Breaking it down further, physical HFE deals with how the human body interacts with furniture and technology. The layout and design of workstations, working postures, line of sight, repetitive movements, fatigue management and personnel safety are all good examples of physical HFE.

Cognitive and organizational HFE focuses on all the other ways humans interact with their surroundings. Cognitive HFE usually includes analysis of mental workload, decision-making, job performance, work stress and training requirements. Organizational human factors include communication, personnel resource management, work design, design of working times, teamwork, virtual organizations and quality management.

By including HFE in the planning of a facility upgrade, you can improve safety, productivity, wellness, job satisfaction—and profits. Whether you're considering a new control room or renovating an existing one, you can make a strong business case to justify integrating HFE during front-end engineering and design (FEED) and throughout all project phases. The return on investment (ROI) that can be realized from increasing efficiencies with an optimized design can be substantial.

Prevent human error

The job of a human factors engineer is to evaluate room layout, proper furniture, required adjacencies of co-workers and noise levels. They're also responsible for defining cognitive and organizational tasks and risks with the goal of reducing the potential for human error.

The International Labor Organization estimates about 2.3 million men and women worldwide die each year from work-related accidents and diseases. There is a staggering amount of data available about work-related illnesses and accidents, most of which could have been prevented. Based on input from risk-management experts, the best way to manage high-cost, low-probability events is by reducing their impact. With HFE involvement, high-impact, low probability events are mitigated by reducing impact, likelihood or both.

HFE involvement starting in FEED is the best way to reduce workplace incidents. FEED focuses on technical requirements, rough costs and initial conceptual planning for projects. According to well-established studies cited by the Abnormal Situation Management (ASM) Consortium:

  • On average, a process industry incident occurs once every three days.
  • Loss of production due to incidents costs companies 3-8% of their capacity annually.
  • Costs of equipment repair, replacement, environmental fines, compensation for human casualties, investigation, litigation, etc., can double the cost and further impact a company’s profitability.

Three primary sources of incidents have been identified by research conducted by ASM Consortium member companies (Figure 1). A major cause of incidents was human error, along with process and equipment factors. The consortium also states that, compared with both process and equipment sources of incidents, human errors are “almost always preventable.” It's established in literature, confirmed by 18 plant studies in the U.S., Canada, and Europe that people:

  •  Fail to detect problems in reams of data;
  •  Are required to make hasty interventions;
  •  May be unable to make consistent responses; and
  •  May be unable to communicate well.

So loss of production due to incidents costs companies 3-8% of their capacity annually, and a very significant cause is human error. Incidents often occur because operators are overwhelmed by data, noise and distractions causing them to miss early indications of problems, and make hasty and inconsistent responses. Poor communication inside and outside the control room may also contribute to the causing incidents. It's critical to involve HFE in any discussion of control room design, so the design can help reduce preventable human errors.

Design for safety

Driven by demands for safer, more reliable and efficient operations, the International Organization for Standardization 11064 standards were initially published in 2000 to create ergonomic and human factors guidelines for planning and design of control rooms with the goal of eliminating the potential for human error. As the use of technology and automation for monitoring plant systems has increased, so has the operator’s responsibility for juggling these tasks. Acts of omission, commission, timing and sequence can be potentially dangerous, and the ISO 11064 framework helps mitigate this danger by providing a systematic process to evaluate and address needs and solutions from the beginning of the planning process. Most petrochemical companies have developed their own safety standards that also contribute to workplace safety. Also, OSHA, ASM Consortium and the American Petroleum Institute are among a few other safety organizations that provide process safety guidelines.

ISO 11064 specifies the standard principles for the ergonomic design of control centers, including layout and dimensions of workstations. It’s filled with control room best practices, whose purpose is to enhance human performance and promote safety best practice.

ISO 11064 is divided into seven parts:

  • Part 1 – Principles for designing control centers
  • Part 2 – Principles for arranging control suites
  • Part 3 – Control room layout
  • Part 4 – Layout and dimensions of workstations
  • Part 5 – Displays and controls
  • Part 6 – Environmental requirements for control centers
  • Part 7 – Principles for evaluating control centers

Designing the work environment ergonomically to suit users can reduce human error, accidents and illness. Designing them right the first time, using the expertise of an HFE and control room architect, can save costly redesign efforts after the building is up and running.

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