November/December 2011

Promoting operator effectiveness-unlock the potential of your process

By Tobias Becker

Name any recent industrial disaster, and you will find the "perfect storm" of events that together led to catastrophic results. In a number of these incidents, compromised operator performance was a key factor, whether it was due to physical conditions such as fatigue, personnel issues such as inexperience or understaffing, or confusing, incorrect, or undecipherable process data. In one recent incident, critical alarms were turned off because the operator had been inundated with too many false and nuisance alarms. Yet many process plants boast state-of-the art information systems that provide real-time information on anything and everything happening in the plant. But if the information is not understandable and easy to interpret, it is almost impossible to make the right decisions to take the appropriate action in any situation.

Operator attention, reaction, and effectiveness are often overlooked areas that can improve the performance and safety of your control system or plant. Yet operator effectiveness is one of the key elements for running a safe, efficient, and profitable plant.

Research shows worldwide process industry losses because of unscheduled downtime and poor quality can exceed $20 billion. Of this, nearly 80% is preventable, with up to 40% being the direct result of operator error.

The good news is there are a number of industry initiatives underway to directly address this challenge. At the same time, there have been dramatic improvements to the tools available to plant operators, as well as innovative uses of existing technologies.

Groundbreaking work continues to be done by the Center for Operator Performance, a group of industry, vendor, and academia representatives working to address human capabilities and limitations with research, collaboration, and human factors engineering. Pending research on alarm presentation, data-to-information display, and a follow-up to initial research on mapping data and decisions to graphic display hold great promise in helping us to understand the human component of process operations and what tools are needed for people to work more effectively. ABB, along with Emerson, are the two automation vendor members of this initiative.

At the same time, control rooms and operator displays are being developed to suit the needs of the operator, to promote effectiveness, improve comfort, and present simplified information displays that are easy to understand. The typical control room installation today consists of a collection of displays containing a dizzying array of information about process operations, historic data, and reports covering quality and productivity, with even closed-caption TV monitors displaying the physical state of assets. Everything from field devices and power distribution equipment to CCTV needs to be controlled and operated seamlessly. Through all of this, the operator must be able to access and act upon the exact information needed at any given moment.

Fortunately, it is now possible for operators to see routine process and critical information from multiple systems through one interface. More importantly, this information is prioritized and presented in an easy-to-understand display, so it can be acted upon quickly and appropriately. Today's leading control systems provide not only integration of different plant systems and multiple plants, they also provide a collaborative environment for operators and engineering teams to work together on projects, share ideas, as well as troubleshoot routine and not-so-routine problems and upsets.

In addition to the enabling technology, greater consideration is being given to the physical environment that the operator works in each day. Control room design has evolved to create the optimal working environment for operator effectiveness.

Our industry needs to renew investment in the cutting edge technology it takes to achieve higher standards for operator ergonomics, data display, and organization, as well as support the great research underway to understand the human factors that contribute to operator effectiveness. As we continue to push the boundaries of process performance, maximize asset use, and strive for greater profits, we need to ensure our most critical part of the process, the operator, has the tools and working environment to safely and successfully meet these challenges. 


Tobias Becker ( is senior vice president and Control Technologies Global Business Unit Manager at ABB.