Ergonomics - The Key To Unlock The Digital Oilfield

Tim Haïdar

In this exclusive interview, we talk to a human factors engineer about ergonomics - designing products, systems, processes and environments to take proper account of the interaction between them and the people that use them - and how maximising the effects of the digital oilfields are all about the man-machine-ambiance interface.

Tim Haidar, Editor-In-Chief, Oil & Gas IQ

RP Ruud Pikaar, Managing Director & Human Factors Engineer, ErgoS

TH Hello, and welcome. This is Tim Haidar, and today I am speaking with Ruud Pikaar of ErgoS Human Factors Engineering. We're going to be speaking today ahead of the Digital Oil Field Summit, which is going to be taking place from the 3rd to the 4th December 2014 in London, United Kingdom. Ruud, Thanks so much for joining us today.

RP Yes. Thank you, Tim

TH So Ruud, a lot of people are going to be asking the questions, they’ve heard of Human Factors, and they’ve heard of engineering. What is Human Factors Engineering?

RP Well, human factors engineering, also known as ergonomics, is concerned with all aspects of human personnel working in industry or environments, for instance the control centres that we find in the oil and gas industry. Human factors concerned at the workplace of course include the man-machine interface, the information display on screens, large screen displays, the working environment. And of course there’s a lot of design to be done - you may call it engineering - if you are going to develop a safe and productive work environment for operators. So, the human factors engineer is a person that has an engineering background and a background in human factors, and he combines this knowledge in designing good workplaces and good human-machine interfaces.

TH Okay, that is a succinct rundown of what you mean by human factors engineering. Now, give us some examples of that man and machine interface, and what companies can do to make sure that they have all of that correct.

RP Well, I think there’s a long tradition in the process industry to have human factors engineers involved in the development of control centres. Maybe that’s not so much the case in the oil production situation, at the offshore platforms and so on, but nevertheless there’s an enormous amount of knowledge available on good designing and standards in human factors guidelines, and so on, that can be used in the development of a good control room. In industry in general, and I think certainly in the oil and gas sector, we have to deal with potentially hazardous situations with the possibility that operators make mistakes in their line of work. We see in the papers often terms like "human error" or "operator error", and we always ask the question, is it really a human error or has there been an engineering error somewhere in developing this work environment?

So, many examples you can see of, well, benefits as well as costs of the human factors input have to do with production loss, in case information has not been read very well by the user, maybe not presented at all. Communication between people working in these environments is always an important issue. Workload, of course, if an operator has too much to do he may make mistakes just not having time enough to do all his activities. And, on the other hand, we see a high level of automation. While this may lead to a very low workload for the operator and that introduces a problem like boredom, not knowing process status in case they have to do something. So there are, again, human factors that have to be taken into account, and I don’t think that many of the traditional engineering disciplines and process technologists know very much about human behaviour. In this case they should really ask more specialised people to support them in their work.

TH Now, an interesting fact that we found when we did a recent survey of our digital fields and IT professionals on Oil and Gas IQ was that their biggest priority for digital oil field projects in 2014 was implementation for improving operational efficiency and safety. 45% of respondents said that that was an imperative for them. Where does what you do come in to making sure that that is a reality?

RP Well, we have to understand very well how the operator behaviour is, well, controlled by its environment, by the tools he has to do his job with, and the information he gets, the way he has to work on this information. So, if you put a person behind an enormous amount of data presented on screens, then there is absolutely a need to present this information in such a way that he can cope with it.

The digital world and the availability of enormous amounts of data and information to be processed brings its own dynamics, its own problems for the people that have to work with it, and human factors, or the human factors engineer, is very much concerned with these things and knows where the limitations and the capabilities of human operators lie. And I think that’s the input we can give to the development of new, modern process and proficient systems.


TH Now, I guess you're essentially talking about rolling together the HSE and human factors professional with the IT professional?

RP Yes, I think that you don’t work on these projects on your own. Certainly, human factors is not something you can do alone to deliver a nice design proposal. It's always a team game where the other disciplines involved in the development of modern control centres have to work together with each other. And that, I think that a multidisciplinary approach is a really important issue for industry. Maybe another example on this is that now a lot of CCTV camera images are appearing in control environments. As far as I'm aware of, telecom engineers work on this topic mostly, so they decide on which instruments, which displays, which cameras, and so on to buy and to install into an installation, but they are not aware of things like how many CCTV pictures an operator could handle, how could we best present that in such a way that the operator really sees the objects in the field that he needs to see?

So, in this new area, maybe the human factors engineer doesn’t have all the answers on how to develop CCTV systems, but when both disciplines work together they can come up with a very good design which suits the needs of the users. And I think there are many more of these examples to be found where engineering disciplines and human factors-oriented people should work together to deliver optimal workplaces.

TH The Digital Oil Field is obviously how the oil and gas industry is going to be segmented in the 21st century. The problem comes when we have people from the disciplines that you're talking about leaving the industry due to the attrition of retirement. Do you see problems there?

RP Well, we see this problem arising at many places. The concern I'm usually confronted with has to do with the experienced operators, so the senior process operators that still have to do a job and have an enormous amount of knowledge on how systems function and how production processes go. And what's indicated to us very frequently is that there is a problem in finding eager, young, well-educated operators to work in this environment. Now, one way to solve this is to incentivise with a very attractive work situation and we can contribute to that. So, that’s one side of the story.

I personally see that once engineers get to know and develop some interest in human factors issues, that this also contributes to liking the job more because they see a user-centred, or user-directed effect of their activities.

TH Ruud, the last question I really want to ask is about whether there are any companies out there that are doing what you think is the right thing with regards to implementing a human factors engineering outlook at the moment, and what advice you would give to companies out there to emulate this.

RP Yes, I think, it's worthwhile mentioning that in the Norwegian oil and gas industry there are even some mandatory checks, verification and validation checks especially directed at the operator work and the operator work environment, and control centre design. So, if you want to put a gas production platform on the Norwegian part of the North Sea, these companies, and therefore, also the engineering contractors, are obliged to spend considerable amount of time on human factors and verification and whether they’ve have developed a good design for this production situation. So, all the major companies working in this area know about human factors and they really are using the knowledge of our applied scientific area.

I also think that the major process industries are well aware of human factors, and some of them decide to use it to their benefit, and others don’t. If there is no legal obligation, there’s always a choice whether to invest in the human factor or not. Some companies do, others don’t. We do have, in our field of interest, quite a lot of evidence that it's profitable to spend a certain amount of energy and engineering input into human factors just to avoid, sometimes very simple mistakes, or just to avoid buying too many instruments.

Some companies do have their own human factors people working at the company, which is of course, from my point of view, a very good idea, while others hire this expertise. I think a little bit of a problem is that most of the large engineering contractors, usually don’t have much human factors knowledge in-house, so you are talking about very large engineering firms, thousands of people working there, and not one single human factors person on board. And that’s a little bit of a pity and also a weakness in how, for instance, in the oil and gas, we are developing new systems.

TH Ruud, thank you so much for your time today

RP My pleasure, Tim