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Inactivity: When doing less can be exhausting!

When the plant, pipeline, system, or grid is running correctly, there are very few surprises. The system seems to quietly “run itself.” When we then minimize the room noise, eliminate distraction and interruption and improve the lighting, sightlines and ergonomics, there seems to be nothing working against your operator/controller. Or is there?

There is little debate that we all want “event free” days in our control room, and all of the above-mentioned elements need to be properly addressed to decrease the chances for missed information, miscommunication, misinterpretation, poor decisions and operator fatigue.

It’s quiet…too quiet

However, when an operator (especially dedicated inside operators) becomes physically inactive while operating a stable control system within a quiet/still room, nature can take over and the desire to sleep can get the best of us. It is a fact that people fall asleep in the control room. However, the more common issue is that operators get drowsy and groggy while operating. In actuality, there is very little difference between being sleepy and actually sleeping. In either case, you can miss information, misinterpret information and/or miscommunicate. In fact, we recently heard first-hand from a client about an alarm that went unattended for two hours because an operator looked like he was monitoring the system as he sat in his chair, but was actually fighting falling asleep for those two hours. The other operator in the room, who was busy monitoring his own system, never heard (no audible alarms-YIKES) and never saw the alarm and assumed his partner was on top of things.

Finding the right balance

So, what’s the solution? We don’t want to invite traffic and all of the associated issues back into the control room and we certainly don’t want an unstable system to be the reason we stay alert. Contrary to popular belief, sugary snacks or energy drinks are not the solution, either. While we do recommend visual stimuli such as TVs, there are times when a TV is not enough to keep us awake and focused. The solution is simple: we need to encourage physical activity/movement for our operators. This not only helps them stay alert and focused while on shift, it also allows them to drive and arrive home safely, have a better quality of life once they get home, and help prevent the long-term effects of a sedentary lifestyle, including weight gain, circulatory issues, spinal compression, heart disease, diabetes etc…

Get up and move around

What “physical activity” and what length of time can actually help our operators stay alert? We need to be PROACTIVE in fighting fatigue. When we wait until we are actually falling asleep, it is tougher to combat our body’s desire to sleep. Physical activity can start with something as simple as standing up while working. Sit/stand consoles allow an operator to work, stand up, and still be able to ergonomically see and access their desktop monitors, keyboards, and other necessary equipment. These are a great way to proactively break the monotony of the shift, combat fatigue, improve circulation, reduce spinal compression, etc…for only about 20% more money than a traditional 24/7 rated console workstation.

Design Matters also recommends 10-20 minutes of actual exercise, as needed (usually only once per shift) either within the control room or in a room immediately adjacent to the control room (an Exercise Suite or Recovery Room). If your operators don’t feel comfortable doing exercise within the control room itself, a small (8’ x 8’) room can be utilized. Obviously, you don’t want your operators “disconnected” from the system, so the simple addition of an easily-visible “read only” alarm screen can provide a safety net to help them stay connected to their system while they achieve and/or maintain a high level of situational and system awareness.

When everything is running smoothly, it’s easy for us to let our guard down in ways that we don’t even realize. Implementation of simple tools will allow operators to be both proactive and reactive in their fight against fatigue!

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