In my chair

Are you sitting comfortably....?

From my experience in control rooms around the world, the answer to this question might be ‘not if you’re a control room operator’.

Chairs always come up during control room assessments, and to be fair, you cannot please everyone with a single chair design, no matter how adjustable it may be. The control room chair will always be a compromise. However, there is no excuse for some of the shockingly bad chairs I’ve come across.

Operators spend up to twelve hours at their workstation. As with any period of sitting while working, the body is subject to a degree of static loading and prolonged poor support and posture can lead to work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs). Fortunately, this appears to be well-understood in most control rooms, and fully adjustable and supportive seating is usually the norm. The Display Screen Equipment regulations mandate an adjustable chair, and most workstations these days are fully assessed. So what’s the problem? Basically, it’s the condition of the chairs.

The first thing to appreciate when looking at chairs is that a control room chair is a specialist piece of kit. It gets a lot more wear than an office chair. Plant managers often complain to me that operators are hard on furniture, wearing out chairs at least twice as fast as office staff do. Of course they do, they are in use 168 hours per week. The office chair is used for maybe 40 hours per week. The control room chair gets 4 times the use of the office chair. The fabric of the chair needs to reflect the hard usage that a 24 hour life throws at it. And it’s not just the fabric, the gas strut and similar dynamic elements of the chair structure will equally be subject to about four times the wear. A specialist chair will be designed to cope with the extra demands.

Worn fabrics and gas struts are only a part of the wear that a chair is subjected to. All ‘work’ chairs will be adjustable to the anthropometrics (size and shape) of the user. Many control room chairs have loose, slack or sometimes broken adjustment mechanisms. This isn’t a surprise when you consider things in detail. The average office chair is adjusted once, in order to meet the needs of a single user. A correctly adjusted control room chair is adjusted at least twice per day. Over a typical three year life, that’s over a thousand times more adjustments for the control room chair compared to the office chair! It’s no wonder that the office chair fails when subject to this duty.

Unfortunately, you cannot tell the standard of construction, finish and design just from looking at the chair. Many chairs that look the part are actually built to very poor standards and can fail prematurely, and sometimes catastrophically. There are some international standards that apply to chairs suitable for extended use. BS5459-2:2000 certification is the one to look for in the UK and many chairs available globally are certified to this standard. You can also look at the guarantee offered, but beware, make sure you look at guaranteed performance in the duty you’re going to subject the chair to. Many 5 year guarantees magically become 2 years or even totally invalid once you put the chair to use in the control room. However, there are some good, long standing and reputable manufacturers prepared to offer five years on control room use.

Reparability or maintainability is worth looking for. Some chairs are constructed modularly and are capable of easy repair and refit. This can be a real advantage. Be careful though. I was recently assessing a control room where the purchasing department had bought the same (modular) office chairs for the office block and the control room. When I commented on this, the plant manager told me that contrary to my expectations, the office chairs were wearing out significantly faster than the control room chairs. What he didn’t know was that in the middle of the night, the operators were replacing their worn chair parts with parts from the office chairs!

Finally, a plea. Please, please can we have clean, hygienic chairs in the control room? I don’t want to spend twelve hours sat in a dirty chair, stained with goodness knows what. I’m sure that control room operators don’t either. Control room chairs get exposed to a lot of substances ranging from dirty overalls, to food and drink, to airborne contaminants. When purchasing a chair, please think about the issue of cleaning when choosing a fabric. Leather might look like an unnecessary expense when looking through the catalogue, but it certainly wipes down well. Other fabrics and materials can be steam-cleaned, but some cannot. Most control rooms have a contract for regular cleaning of floors and other surfaces. Why not add the chairs to the schedule for cleaning?

Having got all that off my chest, I’ve decided to start a ‘black museum’ of control room chairs. You can view the current exhibits in the museum here.

chairs, chairs, chairs

Even better, send me a photo of your control room chair and if it’s good (bad) enough to make the museum, then I’ll put it in. Click here to email me or you can comment on the blog and maybe start a discussion via the comments button below.

Perhaps your chair is really comfortable and you are sitting comfortably, but are you sure that the control room operators are as well?

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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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