Have you ever heard about someone running into the back of another car or off of the road when driving because they were adjusting their radio? The driver was trying to accomplish two tasks at once, driving and adjusting the radio. Similar situations occur in the chemical processing industry, often with disastrous results. In situations where one operator is controlling multiple chemical processes, an upset condition on one of the processes will often result in upsets on the other processes going undetected or misdiagnosed. In both examples, the car driver and the process operator, the people could accomplish the tasks independently, but they could not accomplish multiple tasks at the same time.
One recent study (Human Factors, Vol. 30, No.5) investigated the cognitive factors involved in dual tasks and ways in which to improve dual task performance. The study concluded that single task training can transfer to multiple task performance, but the transfer can be very limited. Training for multiple tasks separately, then asking the operator to perform them together, is a potentially dangerous practice. Dual task training can produce substantial performance improvements even after extended single task training.
The results of the study contain some very important implications for chemical processing plants and oil refineries that are converting to distributed control. If an operator is controlling multiple independent processes, it probably is not sufficient to train the operator on the operation of the processes independently. A portion of the training should be devoted to multiple process operation.
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