Operator Interface

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

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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Allow FEED time for HFE

Allowing more time in the FEED phase to adequately plan and design a control room integrating HFE and ISO 11064 is a smart investment in critical upfront planning. Before the project gets too far down the road, risks and tasks are identified, and a design charrette (intense planning session) is held to generate a room list, room adjacency matrix and any future expansion needs. Drawings are produced and revised until consensus is reached.

The most successful approach requires management commitment and, better yet, an HFE champion and liaison from the company on board to work with the HFE professional from the beginning and throughout all phases of the project. Involving HFE early in the FEED stage to provide expertise at the beginning lays a strong foundation for developing the design.

Related: Download the latest operator interface trends

Involving end users in decision-making throughout the process makes for a stronger design solution and enables their buy-in to the design. Designing the work environment ergonomically to suit users can reduce human error, accidents and illness, and designing it 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.

Identify any factors that may negatively affect the operator and the ability of other personnel to detect deviations, diagnose the situation and take action following a given abnormal situation, and use them as a basis for design recommendations. Again, the goal is to design it right the first time by eliminating safety risks and hazards like noise, fumes, glare, ineffective room layouts and furniture that lacks ergonomic considerations. The 1:10:100 rule of thumb (Figure 2) has been established through experience and case studies: If it costs $1 to fix a usability problem during design, it will cost $10 to fix once the system is developed, and $100 once it's operational. In other words, usability employed too late delivers little ROI.

Calculate ROI

HFE has a proven track record of returning many times the value of the initial investment throughout the operational life of a project. Evaluating the cost of applying HFE and how it will impact ROI can take many forms. After a careful analysis of control room tasks and requirements, you may be able to consolidate operator positions and reduce personnel requirements, estimated at $250,000 to $600,000 in annual salary and benefits. However, reducing manpower is just one consideration. Each company’s economics are going to be different for calculating the ROI of investing in HFE, but there's data available for consideration. We suggest you consider some benchmarked data published about illness or injury costs in your industry.

In “Human Factors Engineering (HFE): What it is and how it can be used to reduce human errors in the offshore industry,” (OTC 10876, Proceedings of 1999 Offshore Technology Conference, Houston, Texas, May 3-6, 1999), G.E. Miller reported that proposed HFE changes in the design of the riser tensioner system for an offshore platform lowered the system’s construction cost by $242,000, as estimated by the company’s engineers. This change was the result of a HFE review of riser tensioner maintenance/replacement requirements. HFE impacts on maintenance, hardware and software affects the reliability of the facility and the efficiency of personnel operating and maintaining the system. Reduction in human error and downtime all lead to a better bottom line.

Monitoring HFE costs for offshore platform design and construction over a nine-year period, Miller (1999) reported HFE program costs can run from 0.08% to 0.12% of the acquisition costs of the platform. Specifically, on the Sable Project, they were originally estimated to be 0.07% of the facility’s cost. Actual HFE costs ended up to be 0.035%, or approximately 50% of the estimated cost.

Other costs often cited as impacting ROI for companies applying HFE to their control room design include: reduction in project implementation time; reduction in redesign; avoidance or reduction of liability claims; legal costs; insurance premium rates; maintaining corporate brand and reputation; employee absence; disability; recruitment; training and retention; equipment maintenance; and reduction in time to implement and/or respond.

Information on cost of incidents, accidents and injuries are available from the U.K. Health and Safety Executive and AIChE