Radio GaGa

Tony Atkinson discusses the pros and cons of having music playing in control rooms

When casting around for a topic for the first blog piece I decided to expand on the most common question that comes up on my Operational Human Factors  “what do I think about operators having a radio or music in the control room?”

With very few exceptions, every control room I assess has a radio or music centre somewhere. Usually it’s openly on display; sometimes it’s hidden in a cupboard to be brought out on the night shift, but it’s there somewhere. Only the very large control rooms with multiple operators seem to do without.

When I find it, I usually turn it on. Most often it defaults to ‘radio’ rather than CD, and most often it’s a speech or mixed speech and music station that it’s tuned to. This ties in with comments from operators that they like the radio for ‘company’ over the shift. There are exceptions of course; I recently witnessed a unit being started up to a soundtrack of Jimi Hendrix, but some speech component seems to be the norm.

So what do management think of music or radio in the control room? Well it varies of course, I’ve seen acceptance (as in the Jimi Hendrix case), I’ve seen tolerance (we’re not going to make an issue of it) and I’ve seen the banning of radios or music. What I haven’t seen is a reasoned argument one way or the other.

The first thing to be said is that when operators modify their environment it’s usually for a reason. Control rooms can be lonely places if single manned overnight and a radio can help. Even where there are two or three operators in the control room, there are pressures involved with spending 12 hours with the same one or two people over an uneventful night shift. A radio to relieve this pressure and create a topic of conversation can help. There are probably good arguments from a social and well-being perspective in allowing radios in many control rooms.

However, there are downsides to allowing radios. The presence of speech seems to negatively affect task performance for a variety of tasks, particularly verbal short term memory and mental arithmetic based tasks. However, much of the research has been conducted relating to open plan offices and ‘unwelcome’ speech, rather than background speech chosen by the recipient. Vigilance tasks appear to be less influenced by background noise/speech.

One thing worth noting is that turning the volume down is unlikely to be beneficial (I have had managers tell me that it’s OK as long as it’s quiet). Distinguishing soft speech from the inevitable control room background hum is going to require some of the attention resources of the operator to manage the lower signal/noise imposed.

The other argument I frequently see is that it is ‘unprofessional’ or inappropriate. During the day, with frequent visitors to the control room and a varied job environment I tend to agree, but overnight the environment can be somewhat different.

So, as with many questions involving human needs and performance there is no clear cut ‘correct’ answer. Perhaps the answer is to allow radio on night shift, but not during upsets or demanding tasks?

To managers proposing banning the radio over the night shift I would remind them of two things. The highest risk activity they indulge in is likely to be the drive to work. Any operator performance decrement due to radio or music is likely to apply equally to this environment as well. Perhaps we should take radios out of control rooms only after we remove the entertainment system from the manager’s company car?

I would welcome your comments on this issue. Have you adopted a policy on radios, has this had a positive/negative effect?

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About the author

Tony Atkinson

I lead the ABB Consulting Operational Human Factors team. I've spent over 30 years in the process industries, working in control rooms around the world, in the fields of ergonomics, control and alarm systems, control room design and operational and cultural issues such as communications, competency and fatigue. I've been blogging on diverse topics that interest me in the widest sense of 'human factors', all of which share the same common element, the 'Mk.1 Human Being' and their unique limitations, abilities and behaviours. I'll discuss the technical and organisational issues that affect safety and performance of these process safety operators and technicians and how this impacts control rooms and the wider plant. However learning comes from many places and you can expect entries about aviation, automotive, marine, healthcare, military and many other fields. Outside of work, I indulge in travel, food, wine and flying kites to keep myself moderately sane. Please feel free to post your comments on each post. Blog entries are posted with no set frequency. To ensure you don't miss out on the latest blog post, click the button below to subscribe to email alerts when a new blog has been posted.
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