To begin with, what is safety in a control room?
In a production facility, safety is commonly related to physical threats like fall from heights, exposure to chemicals, exposure to heat or cold, and other accidents involving physical objects. In the control room, however, there are other safety issues that can affect the humans, systems, or environment.
The physical threats in a control room must not be neglected, but we can say that the risk of falling objects, misplaced ladders or electric shock is rather limited. Human error, on the other hand, is a well-known risk factor which has led to accidents, spills, loss of production, and loss of lives. Human error in the control room has a range of causes, some of which are fatigue, poor ergonomics, high workload, and poorly designed systems, including high alarm rates and standing alarms. Human error is by far the biggest safety issue in control rooms. And the cost of underestimating it or ignoring the causes can be huge.
The balance of cost vs. safety
A fictive example: The cost of missing out a safety alarm that ultimately leads to undetected fire and damage of equipment, is estimated at €800.000. The cost of improving the alarm system is estimated at €250.000.
By improving the alarm system, not only is the risk for this particular incident reduced, but there are other improvements to be achieved as well, including:
- Reduced risk of missing out on alarms in general
- Reduced stress and fatigue of the operators, due to fewer alarms in the control room
- Increased production and efficiency with fewer unplanned shutdowns
How can this improvement NOT be a success?
A common challenge where the cost of safety in central control rooms (CCR) is concerned is the expenses of improvement vs. the lack of immediate profit. This is especially true for established operations, where budgets are more likely to be tight, compared to new builds with more flexibility. However, it is equally important to address this issue as early as possible in new projects, to ensure focus on safety and reduce risks of human error in the control room.
One way to deal with the risks of human error is to include human factors in the design and re-design of control rooms and control centres. By utilising common human factors methods and analyses, it's possible to mitigate some of the known risk factors by ensuring:
- Optimal work environment (lighting, air quality, noise, furniture, ergonomics)
- Reasonable workload
- Common user interfaces
- Task based HMI
- Well-designed alarm system
- Control room layout that is fit for the purpose
It is difficult to put a price tag on safety in the control room, but it is possible to estimate the cost of escalated situations as a result of human error. Most companies have risk matrices that are reviewed on a regular basis by their HSEQ departments. However, human factors in the control room may not always be considered as input to these. By considering human factors on the probability side, a more realistic matrix can be achieved.
The magical balance
A magical balance simply does not exist. The best solution will be to run an efficient production with happy operators in a sound work environment. Over time, this will be visible also in the accounting department, when sick leave is reduced, downtime is minimised, and accidents rarely happen.
The key is to look beyond immediate profit and make long-term investments in safe operations and good work environments, to keep the dots in the green corner of the risk matrix.