Humans are adaptable – but how sustainable is this in offshore drilling

07 September 2017

It is a fact that every one of us encounters different sets of challenges every day. We make allowances in relation to how we interact with other people, the equipment around us, and to the demands of our jobs. We are constantly negotiating our environment and adapting to the world around us. We can do this because we are human and humans are adaptable. But adapting takes both physical and mental effort, and there is a limit to our capacity to adjust; after which we can become despondent, make errors, or at best become overly fatigued.

Recent focus in the industry has been on crew work and rest hours and on fatigue monitoring and prediction (e.g. ILO MLC, STCW, Fatigue monitoring and prediction software such as LR’s Remote Human Resource Optimisation). But what if we could optimise asset design to take into account our human abilities and limitations and potentially reduce some of the aspects of fatigue?

Human Factors Integration (HFI) into the design of complex systems has been carried out in other industries for many years, with significant efficiency improvements and reduction in human error (e.g. Aviation, Rail, Defence, and Medical). But can we do more?

On-board adaptation – where we are now
There are many examples of crews having to physically and mentally adapt to their on-board environment every single day. Take a person who, for example, cannot reach the valve they are required to turn. Will they stretch as far as they can before having to obtain a stool or ask someone else to perform the task? What about the person that cannot reach the manual control panel or see the control labels unless they place their whole arm through and their head near to a set of hydraulic oil pipes!

There are also examples where crew have had to make their own amendments to their workplace to ensure they are able to maintain good situational awareness. Crews have been known to add paper, notes or pen marks in order to alter the equipment to match their mental models and expectations. And, what happens to the way we perform a job when we adopt a fairly typical set of behaviours – the Safety Culture – when we hear all too often the statement “this is the way we do things around here” (when nobody is checking). 

Every time a person adapts to their environment, there is additional unnecessary strain placed on their mental and physical capabilities. Over time this accumulates and potentially results in higher workloads and increased injury risk fatigue levels across a usually already stretched crew.

The human as a key element
We need to consider the design of the asset – from the drilling rig, and the vessel, to a piece of equipment and how it operates and decision can be made accurately and correctly – in other words, the total organisation as a complex system comprising the human as a key element of the system. To do this, we as experts need to understand human abilities and limitations for application to our asset designs offshore as well as onshore, to ensure we better support our crews. Just as importantly, we need also to consider these aspects of humans in the organisational set-up and daily operation of our business.

How can our human abilities and limitations be taken into account?
Individuals come in all shapes and sizes. When considering the design of an asset, we need to consider the biomechanics (how we move) and anthropometrics (size range) of the crew population we intend to employ. In today’s industry it is more likely that the crew will be multi-national and therefore a “one-size fits all” design principle will need to ensure that representative anthropometric and bio-mechanical measurements from the range of nationalities are included in the design.

We can improve the operational effectiveness of an asset if we design it so that the crew can easily access and operate the asset as intended. For a vessel, could include: 

  • the location of controls (such as height of overhead controls) and workstation layouts to ensure the crew can see, interpret, reach and manipulate the controls and perform tasks;
  • the size, location and access to walkways, operational, maintenance, and machinery areas.

We can also reduce the amount of cognitive or mental pressure we place on our crew by understanding how we take in, process and act upon information from our environment. We need to understand what affects our ability:  

  • humans have the ability to utilise different attentional resources at the same time – so a control room operator can visually monitor the status of the platform on the control displays whilst relaying information to a maintenance technician via radio;
  • humans are unable to use the same attentional resources effectively – so the control room operator cannot listen and process the operations team leader’s verbal instruction whilst also simultaneously listening to the maintenance technician’s feedback.

We need to consider who we are asking to do, what and when; and then support these activities with attention-optimised workstations.

Memory and recall
Humans can have fairly good event recall given the right circumstances. For example, we are able to recall 7 + / - 2 bits of individual information at any one time, but we have developed strategies to extend this by “chunking” information together. Ordering and sequencing information in logical “chunks” and sections can increase the amount of information the crew member can take in at any one time.

Cognition and recognition
Humans can perceive information faster if that information is familiar and conforms to expectations or conventions. Alarms and alerts can be designed to improve memory, recognition and recall by, for example:

  • ensuring a clear match between the alarm label and the referenced system. The alert Identifier should be written in generic terms, not with a manufacturer-specific product number or identifier.
  • distinguishing high priority alerts from low priority alerts.
  • follow conventions within and across the company’s systems.

Integrate Human Factors into the engineering design from the beginning of the asset’s lifecycle
We can easily consider and design for these factors by incorporating Human Factors Integration (HFI) into asset design from the outset. HFI is a systematic method that works in conjunction with the engineering process of your organisation from the beginning, continuously utilizing end-user input that ultimately helps to reduce human error, musculoskeletal injury and fatigue and improves performance, safety and resilience on your assets. HFI can certainly help you to decide if the role of people in the system is feasible and whether the required level of human performance is sustainable now and in the future?

As an industry, we can and should do more to support the well-being of our crews, not only in regards to their individual health and safety and the supporting organisation, but in relation to the fundamental design of the assets we are asking them to live and work on.
You can discover more about our human factors work and meet our experts at SPE Offshore Europe 2017 event in Aberdeen, Scotland – UK, 5-8 September at Booth #2C121.

Jason Knights

Head of External Communications and Media Relations, Energy

Oil and gas, nuclear and renewable energy

London, United Kingdom