Lighting: – Are you seeing as much as you think?

We don’t work in an office

Let’s start with this: control rooms are not like offices or any other room at your facility. The work that takes place in a control room is critical, time-sensitive, and unforgiving of errors. Since we know this to be the case, why is the lighting in a control room typically no different from that of an office? In fact, control room lighting is often WORSE than office lighting. The lighting found in most control rooms creates many small problems, which can lead to big mistakes in the moment, produce frayed nerves over time, create eye fatigue and, ultimately, body fatigue.
The short-term problems are always more apparent: glare from overhead lighting reflects on monitors, forcing you to shift back and forth in order to see all of the information on the screen or, worse yet, glare causes you to misinterpret the information displayed or even miss it entirely. Low lighting may make it difficult to read and write notes during a shift, necessitating the adjustment to different lighting levels as you refer back and forth between various monitors and a notebook. In a critical moment, this slows you down and keeps you from resolving problems as quickly as should be possible, wasting time and money and potentially endangering people and property.

There can be real consequences

At Design Matters, we have seen firsthand examples of both of these scenarios. Glare from sunlight coming into the control room (yes, that light also needs to be taken into account) made an “8” look like a “0” on the overview screen and caused an operator to assume that a tank had not yet started filling up when, in actuality, it was almost full. On another occasion, important instructions were missed by the oncoming controller when handwritten event log notes were read incorrectly in the dimly-lit control room. Most of the time, we get lucky and these mistakes don’t result in a crisis. Other times, however, these seemingly minor annoyances have drastic consequences.

Some fixes make it worse

There are quick fixes that are regularly employed in the field, such as lowering room lighting, small, localized desk lamps, adjusting the position of monitors in an attempt to avoid glare. These can be effective fixes for some of the immediate problems, but they simply introduce new fatigue issues that will arise over the course of a shift. Working a night shift with low light levels is a terrible idea, as your body’s natural circadian rhythms will simply tell you that it’s time to sleep. And localized light sources to brighten a desk area will cause your eyes to dilate back and forth as you move from the lit area back to a monitor, slowing your reading and response time and resulting in eye and body fatigue. If you’ve moved a monitor to reduce glare, you have also likely placed it at a poor viewing angle or distance, or have created a shadow on your work-surface. These adjustments ultimately take us back to square one.

There are good solutions

Correcting light issues is rarely a major project. Most control room light issues are caused by: 1) poor light quality, 2) poor light level, and 3) poor positioning of the light in relation to the operator/controller.
Buying the correct light fixture*, setting a minimum light level (we recommend a minimum light level of 40 foot candles (fc) measured at the desktop) and avoiding ceiling fixture placement directly over the head of the operator is a great start, as is providing a retractable/adjustable task light at the console so that more light can be concentrated where needed.

A properly lit room can keep you alert and aware so that you’re not fighting with your own control room environment to do to your job.

*Identifying the “correct light fixture” is easier said than done. LED light is generally considered a better, brighter more consistent light source than fluorescent technology. However, neither LED nor fluorescent address the potential health issues associated with nighttime exposure to blue wavelength, which can affect circadian rhythms and the secretion of melatonin. Currently, there is a light being beta-tested that would address these potential side effects, possibly making it an ideal fit for 24/7 control rooms. We will provide more information on that light and the test results as they become available.

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-Steve Whitley is the founder of Design Matters and has more than 20 years of experience in 24/7 Mission Critical room layout, design and outfitting. His “100 Critical Elements” method of Control Room Design goes well beyond the ISO 11064 standard, providing safety, consistency, and effective operation in the control room.

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