Autopro Blog

4 Critical Aspects to Maximizing Control Room Operator Effectiveness

August 24, 2016


Over the past decade, largely in response to catastrophic industrial accidents and the resulting legislated requirements in a number of jurisdictions, companies have become much more aware of the importance of control room operator situational awareness and the human factor engineering considerations, which can impact an operator’s ability to detect and respond to abnormal process plant conditions.

Research originating in the military and aviation industry has formed the foundation of the work, which has been subsequently carried out in the process industries to improve control room operator situational awareness. Lack of situational awareness, at worst, can have the potential to result in a serious industrial incident, and is commonly responsible for increased facility shutdowns, and reduced facility productivity.

Four areas that need to be considered when discussing how to maximize control room operator effectiveness are:

  • Alarm rationalization
  • Control room and console design
  • Control graphic design
  • Procedures and workflows

Let’s discuss each of these topics in greater detail.

Alarm Rationalization

Effective alarm management has been cited as one of the most important factors contributing to control room operator situational awareness. The migration to a new control system provides a logical opportunity to review and rationalize the existing alarms – before they are configured in the new system.

Using industry standards and best practices, alarms should be reviewed against an alarm philosophy with input from operations, process engineering, process control, and other related stakeholder groups as appropriate. This ensures that the alarm is appropriate and effective, and the cause of, and response to each alarm is understood, documented, and available to the control room operator.

Most control system vendors now include the ability to incorporate alarm rationalization data such as cause, consequence, and corrective action into the configuration such that this data is directly available at the operator console. This great improves the operator’s ability to diagnose and respond to upset conditions.

Control Room and Console Design

Control room operators make countless decisions each shift which directly impact the safety and profitability of the facility. Good control room operator situational awareness means the operator is continually aware of all of the information needed to understand the current operational state of the plant, predict changes in the operation state, and make effective decisions.

This information typically comes from a number of sources, including:

  • Control systems
  • Safety systems
  • Video monitoring systems
  • Operational dashboards supplying facility or process unit key performance metrics
  • Communication with field operators
  • Communication with maintenance personnel
  • Communication with third-party upstream or downstream facilities or utilities
  • Communication with management
  • Direct facility surveillance (ears, eyes, nose)
  • Access to operating manuals, procedures, and drawings

However, what the operator is shielded from is just as important as what is made available to him or her. Unwanted distractions and irrelevant information only serve to take the operator’s attention away from the important information required to make timely, accurate operational decisions.

Control room and control console design plays a pivotal role in ensuring the operator has ready access to the informational and communication resources required, and is buffered from unnecessary distractions.

The unique requirements of each specific facility must be clearly quantified and translated into an effective control room and control console design.

Control Graphic Design

Good situational awareness requires that the operator have continuous surveillance of critical operating parameters and states. Information needs to be presented in ways that:

  • are easy to interpret,
  • leverage human cognitive strengths such as pattern recognition,
  • make it easy to understand the magnitude, speed, and direction of change of key process operating parameters, and
  • provide a continuous high level overview of key operating conditions and equipment states.

Additionally, the operator console graphics should support integration of other decision support tools, including operating manuals, engineering drawings, and alarm cause and response information.

Graphics standard including ASM “Effective Operator Display Design, ISA 101, ISO 11064-5, EEMUA 201, and NUREG-0700 have been in existence since as early as 2002, and were developed to promote operator console graphic design that maximize situational awareness.

Humans have finite cognitive capacities. Well-designed console graphics relieve the console operator from having to perform mundane repetitive tasks, perform overly complex or repetitive graphic navigation, perform repetitive interpretive tasks, and free up cognitive capacity to perform more valuable operational state analysis and decision-making.

It is important to understand how the various facets of operator console graphic design impacts operator situational awareness and to ensure operator console graphics use industry recognized standards and best practices. The migration to a new control system provides a logical opportunity to implement these standards, resulting in enhanced control room operator situational awareness and improved facility productivity.

Control Console Procedures and Workflows

Within a facility there may be procedures that are infrequently executed, perhaps others with complex procedure paths with multiple decision points, and some which must be rapidly executed. Control console procedures may be associated with normal operation, startup, shutdown, upset, or emergency modes of operation.

For relatively frequent, simple operations, written procedures are typically adequate guidance for control console operators. Many incidents and upset conditions in process plants are associated with procedural errors occurring in complex or infrequent operations.

For more complex or less frequent operations, there may be an advantage to integrating the procedure into a workflow within the control system, which guides the control console operator through the procedure.