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Noise – Distracting Now, Devastating Later

In the first installment of our series highlighting the short- and long-term effects of distractions within control room environments, we will cover the topic of noise. Alarms, alerts, radios, telephones, conversations, traffic… the list goes on and on. Control room noise seems to hit us from every direction and never seems to go away. Excess noise makes communication less effective, distracts controllers and operators from their tasks and ultimately causes operator fatigue — sometimes in ways that are not readily apparent. A control room may be located away from sources of loud noise, but smaller noises like cooling fans, foot traffic, and simple conversation can build up in a room with improper absorption and dispersion of noise.

It’s Louder in there than You Think

Think about this: without acoustic treatment (via workstation placement, absorption/deadening materials, direction speakers, etc.) the average control room can easily reach a peak noise level of 85-90 decibels (dB), whereas ideal noise levels should be around 55-60dB. While that may not sound like much, consider that decibels are a logarithmic measurement, where 10dB represents a doubling of volume. In this case, that 30dB increase represents eight times (8X) the volume. Imagine this as the difference between working in a quiet office and standing next to a busy street. At these high levels, it becomes clear that communication and focus become extremely difficult and even dangerous. Operators don’t understand or hear one another, have a hard time hearing clearly on the phone and/or radio, and instructions are misinterpreted.

Short-term Problems

At Design Maters, we have witnessed this increased noise factor first-hand, on multiple occasions, while with clients onsite. In one such instance, an operator at a chemical plant was working with his field operator on a fairly serious problem in the plant. During the situation, the control room had become very crowded with people who felt like their presence was needed (A quick note to those who feel this way: If you are not part of the immediate solution, you quickly become part of a bigger problem.) With more people, comes more noise. The inside operator instructed the outside operator “no” but the outside operator thought he heard the word “go.” Obviously, there is a big difference between those two words and, as a result, the problem quickly escalated. Fortunately, the Supervisor, who had once been an operator, realized that the extra visitors were making the communication difficult and he instructed everyone to “shut up or leave.” Only then were the inside and outside operator able to communicate clearly and effectively.

Long-term Fatigue

You may get lucky and dodge the type of bullet mentioned above. However, there is no dodging the onset of fatigue caused by continuous exposure to noise and the resulting distraction. The longer we work in a control room environment, the more we convince ourselves that we have become “accustomed” to the noise and don’t feel the compounding effect that exposure to noise has on our bodies during a 12-hour shift. Noise, and the resulting distraction, causes stress and stress causes fatigue. All too often, an operator will miss an alarm, misread, or miscommunicate information because of fatigue. If you have ever felt groggy or ‘zoned out’ due to fatigue, you know how difficult it can be to process information and communicate information quickly and concisely.

Hopefully, you will never be faced with having to manage a problem or make a critical decision while battling the effects of noise-related fatigue. Then again, maybe you won’t be so lucky. It’s not a risk you can afford to take. Consider how a tired and lethargic operator leaving work after a 12-hour shift very quickly becomes a tired and lethargic driver out on the road.

Fixing noise problems in an existing control room is a relatively simple and inexpensive proposition, yet the impact of such improvements are profound. Design Matters understands that the key lies in identifying and addressing each individual noise source within the room to maximize operator efficiency and accuracy, thereby preventing costly and dangerous complications.

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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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