Fatigue in the Control Room: The Unique Dangers

Why is fatigue mitigation critical for control room operators?

Control room operators across various industries are responsible for monitoring and maintaining systems that can that influence the safety of a workforce.

They are required to be attentive for extended periods of time, detect subtle changes in systems, respond quickly to safety threats and other incidents, and maintain communication with various workforce crews – just to name a few job responsibilities.

Based on the known switches of human alertness, the nature of the control room environment and complex job requirements can increase the likelihood of a fatigued operator falling asleep on the job.

Clearly, this could have devastating consequences – which validates the need for federal regulations on maximum hours of service, employee fatigue training, and workload assessment for control room operations.

Yet how does a fatigued control room operator threaten the integrity and safety of an operation beyond lapses in attention due to fatigue?

Imagine this scenario…

A control room operator shows up for the night shift feeling fatigued. In a sleep-deprived state, the operator struggles to remain alert and attentive to the many computer monitors reporting back that things are running smoothly. The calming hum of the computers acts as a lullaby to the fatigued operator, who can’t help but to feel sleepy in the dimly-lit control room. It’s almost as if the room was designed to put the operator to sleep.

control room
The sleep-deprived operator is having trouble with maintaining focus on relevant cues, developing and updating strategies based on new information, keeping track of events, and attending to activities judged to be non-essential.

The operator eventually falls into a state known as “automatic behavior syndrome”, in which he or she looks to be attentive and responsive, but is unable to respond to changes in the system or maintain situational awareness.

Out of nowhere, a situation arises. A pipeline is under abnormally high pressure after the operator fails to respond to a pressure change in one of the gauges. The operator switches into high-alert mode, but the cognitive declines associated with fatigue linger.

The fatigued operator is slow to assess the situation and struggles to draw upon previous training to develop a solution. The operator makes a unilateral decision to proceed with a risky strategy for fixing the pipeline. The crew cautions the operator that safer, more effective options exist; however, the operator chooses to continue with the risky strategy.

In a distressed and cognitive impaired state, the operator fails to communicate several key details to crews trying to fix the problem. The pipeline ruptures, resulting in devastating damage to the environment and costly fines to the company.

 ruptured pipeline

This is reality of worker fatigue.

This hypothetical scenario has been an unfortunate reality in too many situations.

In fact, worker fatigue was found to be a contributing factor in the infamous 1986 Chernobyl disaster, where disastrous decisions were made by control room operators working long night shifts.

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Fatigue-related error was deemed a contributing factor to the 1986 Chernobyl Disaster. (Image from boston.com)

Disasters like Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island, and the 2005 Texas City Explosion are solemn reminders that fatigued control room operators can inadvertently make poor decisions that can have grave consequences.

For these reasons, it makes perfect sense as to why fatigue management should be a priority for operators, facility managers, and all 24/7 industries.

Most fatigue regulations start and end with hours of service policies. While this is a good starting place, it fails to address all of the factors that contribute to fatigue, such as control room design. To ensure the alertness of workers, a comprehensive fatigue risk management system (FRMS) needs to be in place.

CIRCADIAN® 5 Defenses FRMS Design
CIRCADIAN 5 Defenses FRMS

Learn more about Fatigue Risk Management Systems

Download our white paper, “Evolution of Fatigue Risk Management Systems”, to learn more about the development of fatigue risk management systems and the CIRCADIAN® 5 Defenses FRMS Design.

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 FRMS White Paper

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About CIRCADIAN®

CIRCADIAN® is the global leader in providing 24/7 workforce performance and safety solutions for businesses that operate around the clock.  Through a unique combination of consulting expertise, research, software tools and informative publications, CIRCADIAN helps organizations in 24/7 workforces optimize employee performance and reduce the inherent risks and costs of their extended hours operations.

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