November 2020, Vol. 247, No. 11


Control Rooms Faced with Navigating the Pandemic

By Michele Terranova, Katie Leonard, Christina Via and Charles Alday, Pipeline Performance Group

During the COVID-19 pandemic, while most of us stayed in the comfort of our homes to work, homeschool and shop online, pipeline control rooms continued operations without skipping a beat. The lights and, more importantly, streaming internet services were on.

We continued to heat our ovens and bake our latest attempted sourdough loaf. Our lives at home, albeit a little different, continued. Kudos to the pipeline industry for rising above the situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to safely control and operate pipelines.

How do companies keep their control room teams safe, functional and productive during this time? We asked over 300 controllers from 13 U.S. and Canadian control rooms for first-hand accounts of how their companies responded to the pandemic and controller needs. Our investigation focused on how well the control rooms functioned in an altered environment, the impact of changes on controller workload and preserving good control room management (CRM) practices.

Controllers from gas transmission, gas distribution and hazardous liquids control rooms were surveyed between April and early July 2020. For the most part, these controllers are representative of the pipeline industry. They were, on average, 41 years old, had seven years’ control room experience and included 13% female controllers, which is higher than our 8% industry benchmark.1  

Nearly three-fourths (74%) of the controllers who responded classified themselves as experienced or expert controllers. Most of the control rooms had between two and four consoles, but three control rooms were larger.

All of the control rooms made accommodations to safeguard their controllers:

• Practicing social distancing 

• Using multiple control room locations

• Reducing on-site personnel

• Conducting remote shift turnovers

• Implementing health and wellness measures

• Providing cleaning protocols

These essential accommodations were put into place to protect controllers and their families, and to prevent the spread of illness.  Pipeline Performance Group LLC investigated the impact of these accommodations. Were companies able to meet the challenges of the pandemic while still maintaining proper CRM practices? 

The purpose of PHMSA’s CRM safety regulations is to create an environment in which controllers will be successful maintaining pipeline safety and integrity. While the environment has been impacted by the current pandemic, the safety regulations must be maintained. 

Our investigation focused on the impacts of control room accommodations related to change management, roles and responsibilities, shift change, communications and support, fatigue mitigation and stress management, and controller workload. 

Combining several issues related to each area, we developed a five-star rating scale and score card.

(image: PPG)

The good news is companies overall are responding well to the pandemic. This score card shows that pandemic response efforts of the 13 participating companies were largely positive for all categories. Overall, those areas for which controllers rated the response most favorably received a score of 3.9 stars or higher: shift change/turnover, change management, roles and responsibilities, and communication and support.  

It is not surprising, during this time of pandemic, that fatigue mitigation and stress management received the lowest score card rating, 3.3 stars. This category showed the most room for improvement. Increased job-related stress, exacerbated by additional personal and family stress during this time, appeared to be contributors to increased fatigue and stress among many of the controllers. At home, added stress to deal with the inconveniences of the pandemic likely compromised critical rest and recovery need by the controllers between shifts. 

In addition, many controllers reported exercising less (more than one-third), eating poorly (more than one-fourth) and ingesting more caffeine (more than one-fourth) during this time, which can intensify feelings of stress and fatigue. Several control rooms reported restrictions placed on the controllers’ on-site fatigue and stress mitigation tools, such as access to break rooms, exercise facilities and sit-to-stand desks.  

Fatigue mitigation and stress management should include changes not only to the control room and related processes, but also training to equip controllers with techniques for the self-regulation of their own fatigue and stress. 

Since about one in three controllers indicated eating poorly and not exercising, companies should take this opportunity to reeducate controllers on the impact of healthy diets, exercise and stretching on how they process stress and how well they sleep. It would be advised for companies to provide healthy snacks, easy access to clean water and exercise opportunities for controllers while on shift. 

Finally, companies should provide reasonable alternatives to fatigue mitigation and stress management resources that may be temporarily restricted due to the pandemic. These types of interventions reduce fatigue and stress and can commonly lead to improved levels of controller workload and better situation awareness on the job.


Human factors literature provides an excess of incidents caused by human error.  People have a tendency to focus on the little blinking red light, while losing sight of the terrain. This pandemic is no different. In our survey of 329 controllers from the U.S. and Canada, every participating control room made changes in response to the pandemic. Based on our investigation, companies were largely able to meet the challenges of the pandemic while still maintaining proper CRM practices, but there is room for improvement.

While the changes adopted were vital to protecting health and safety and following pandemic guidelines, companies should not lose sight of those components essential to controllers’ safe operation of the pipeline.  

Companies should strive for highly effective communication, change management, roles and responsibilities, shift schedules, shift turnovers and maintaining optimal controller workload. We also strongly encourage companies to empower controllers in the self-regulation of their own fatigue and stress implicated by this pandemic.    

Authors: Michele Terranova, Ph.D., is a principal of Pipeline Performance Group LLC. She has more than 25 years of experience in human factors and user interface design and has held positions as the director of Human Factors Research at Concord Associates Inc. and senior research scientist at The Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Katie Leonard, Ph.D., is a human factors engineer with Pipeline Performance Group. She has more than 20 years of experience in human factors and ergonomics spanning a variety of industries, including oil and gas control rooms 

Christina Via, who is an administrative and training consultant, manages the administrative operations of Pipeline Performance Group and provides human factors and team resource management training for clients.  She holds a bachelor’s degree in management (specializing in human resources) from Florida State University and a master’s degree in systems management from Florida Institute of Technology.   

Charles Alday has 54 years of experience in pipeline construction, operations, maintenance, management and consulting. For the last six years of his 30-year career with Colonial Pipeline Co., he has worked with people and teams in all parts of the organization as leader of their Operational Excellence program – designed to eliminate pipeline leaks, spills and errors.   

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