Pipeline control room shifts are the subject of much debate and discussion in the industry. While the majority of pipeline controllers prefer a 12-hour shift schedule, other stakeholders in the control room may prefer their crews to work an 8-hour shift.
What’s the primary concern? For pipeline operators, it’s maintaining vigilance throughout the duration of a 12-hour shift, especially during late-night or middle-of-the-night periods. This is increasingly challenging when a controller is at the end of a cycle and days off are on the horizon.
Fortunately, there is new data to help facilitate discussion and decision-making for pipeline operators, control room managers, and controllers. Circadian, a leading consulting firm that analyzes shiftwork management, released a new research report, “Advantages and Disadvantages of 12-Hour Shifts” (with comparisons to the 8-hour shift).
The report includes interesting findings to help control room stakeholders make informed decisions about how to structure control room shifts to maintain vigilance and safe operations. This information can also be applied to think through workforce challenges created by the COVID-19 health crisis to optimize scheduling in support of pipeline safety.
Additionally, for operators of PHMSA-regulated pipelines, you may want to view this information through the lens of ensuring compliance with the Fatigue Mitigation requirements outlined by PHMSA in the Control Room Management (CRM Rule).
Why 12-Hour Shifts in the Pipeline Control Room?
The modified DuPont Shift Schedule is the most common shift schedule utilized in the pipeline control room. To support 24/7 pipeline control room coverage, this 12-hour rotating shift schedule calls for multiple teams to cover each of the consecutive 12-hour shifts within a 24-hour period. There are many advantages for both management and individual contributors.
Advantages for Management
From a management perspective, these are the primary data-supported advantages to this approach cited in the new Circadian report:
- Increased productivity: teams become “locked into” their function when settling in for a 12-hour shift. Comparatively, there is wasted “ramp-up time” in the 8-hour shift model as controllers re-engage with their tasks each day.
- Increased accountability: fewer teams and fewer shifts means the ability to track errors, miscommunication, gaps, and other related issues. Comparatively, additional shifts in the 8-hour model can lead to more gaps and discrepancies.
- Reduced absenteeism: because of fewer shifts and teams, shiftworkers have a greater sense of responsibility to bear their weight and report to work for their shift.
- Stat: The absenteeism rate was 10% lower for 12-hour shift companies compared to 8-hour shift companies.
Advantages for Controllers
From a shiftworker (e.g. pipeline controller) perspective, there are significant benefits to utilizing the 12-hour schedule. The Circadian report captured the most common benefits that apply to pipeline controllers:
- More days off: The accumulation of hours worked on one given day (12 hours vs. 8 hours) means a faster accumulation of service hours, which means more actual days off. Circadian noted that 12-hour shiftworkers average 183 days off per year vs. only 92 days off for 8-hour shiftworkers.
- Longer breaks: The modified DuPont schedule utilized in the pipeline control room allows for longer breaks in between shift cycles. This creates a greater opportunity for controllers to take care of personal and family needs without worrying about rushing back to the control room.
- Less commuting required: For controllers with long or stressful commutes to the control room, a 12-hour shift reduces the frequency of needing to commute back and forth.
- Stat: Circadian calculated that the average 12-hour shiftworker realizes $4,354 in reduced transportation pre-tax costs per year.
Disadvantages of 12-Hour Shift Capture Need For Vigilance
The primary concern of 12-hour shifts cited by the Circadian report is the greater challenge to sustain vigilance. This has far-reaching implications from both the management and controller perspective.
– For management: there is validation to the concern that 12 hours may be too long for an individual to maintain constant vigilance and effectiveness, especially in a role that requires alertness to safety-related issues.
There is also concern that controllers may wear down from performing stressful tasks for 12 hours at a time over a prolonged period of time. Circadian cited that this is especially the case in situations where workers alternate between day and night shifts throughout their cycle.
From the Circadian report: “The day shift often provides high demands of work related activity and distraction, and involves a high number of interactions with maintenance, instrumentation engineers, contractors, and other support staff who work straight day shifts. This is especially true on weekdays. 12 continuous hours may be a long time for an employee to deal with the stress associated with these conditions.”
– For the controller: the vigilance issue centers on how the shifts are structured. If controllers are constantly tossed between day and night shifts, there is greater risk for both the safety of the operation and the health of the worker.
This “flip-flopping” between day and night makes it difficult for controllers to adjust to frequent changes. Circadian recommends that companies create “well-designed, biocompatible schedules” that provide for sufficient recovery time between rotations.
This concern is exacerbated by diminished sleep for workers on a 12-hour shift. The Circadian report noted the following statistics comparing rest for a 12-hour worker vs. an 8-hour worker.
- 12-hour workers: 48% get less than 6 hours of sleep on a day shift schedule.
- 8-hour workers: only 38% of workers get less than 6 hours of sleep.
- 12-hour workers: 55% get less than 6 hours of sleep on a night shift schedule.
- 8-hour workers: 52% of workers get less than 6 hours.
On average, more than half of the surveyed 12-hour shiftworkers get less than 6 hours of sleep during their shift cycle. That itself presents concerns about maintaining vigilance in the control room.
One specific application to the pipeline industry is the age of the controller. While most pipeline controllers prefer the 12-hour schedule, there is concern about how the aging process affects vigilance.
Circadian noted that older shiftworkers physically respond “less favorably toward 12-hour shifts than younger workers.” The report cites evidence that it is “physiologically more difficult for someone in their mid 50’s or 60’s to sustain vigilance for longer periods of time than it is for someone younger.”
– Disadvantages conclusion: Every pipeline control room is different. Some control rooms have an experienced roster, some have a younger roster of newer pipeline professionals entering the industry, and others have a broad mix of older and younger workers. Still also, your control room may be preparing for a major transition as older controllers prepare for retirement. These factors need to be carefully weighed as you make decisions about the 12-hour shift schedule to maintain vigilance and safety.
PHMSA CRM Rule Requirements for Fatigue Mitigation
Section D of the PHMSA CRM Rule focuses on the requirements for fatigue mitigation to ensure controller alertness and vigilance. For operators of PHMSA-regulated pipeline, there are specific elements to be aware of concerning fatigue management.
Most notably, PHMSA recommends in their CRM Rule FAQs that “controllers must have an opportunity for eight hours of continuous sleep between shifts.” PHMSA further encourages “at least ten continuous hours of off-duty time to allow for commutes and other personal activities prior to going to sleep or after waking up,” while allowing room for shorter or longer commute times influencing the appropriate amount of off-duty time.
The stated goal is for controllers to be able to work to up 12 hours (plus 1 hour for shift hand-over) per day across a week “with a modest risk of fatigue.” To keep risk minimal, and reduce the need for a more elaborate fatigue mitigation program, PHMSA has noted the following parameters:
– Keep total continuous hours worked within 8 hours, allowing for lunch breaks and “bio breaks” throughout the day.
– 12-hour shifts are acceptable “if additional fatigue mitigation measures are implemented” (e.g. additional breaks during the shift).
– For the late window in a 12-hour shift, PHMSA recommends that operators be aware of the potential for increased fatigue and consider countermeasures for the 9th through 12th hours of 12-hour shifts. For day shifts, this typically requires measures such as additional breaks throughout the day, but operators should consider additional measures in alignment with the specific needs of each controller.
– Keep days worked to five consecutive days, with two consecutive days off, and avoid excessive “on-call” duties. Also, limit the total hours worked per week to 65.
– Create room in the shift schedule for training and education.
– Operators should be vigilant for chronic fatigue and the potential need for related fatigue countermeasures.
– Operators who vary from the PHMSA parameters in their shift schedule should be able to demonstrate why the variation does not elevate the risk of fatigue.
The need to validate deviations is captured in the PHMSA Control Room Management Inspection Questions form utilized by a PHMSA inspector. The form notes that pipeline operators should capture their plan for one full cycle of shiftwork (e.g. a 12-hour, 4-crew or 5-crew DuPont plan or an 8-hour, 4-crew plan).
Operators will then need to document any deviations from the shift plan (e.g. abnormal operating condition or a controller calling out sick,) and relay why the deviations did not increase the risk of fatigue.
The Application to COVID-19 Workforce Transition
Many pipeline operators have been working through how to balance workforce changes introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Can some work be performed at home, which impacts commute times?
- Does working from home for a prolonged period of time vs. a dedicated console create an elevated level of risk?
- How does the elimination of commute time affect scheduling?
- How do we adjust schedules if a controller tests positive for COVID-19?
- When do we bring certain teams back to the control room?
- What’s a fair shift schedule for workers who commute vs. work from home?
When seeking answers to these difficult questions during a period of uncertainty, decision-makers need to return to the ultimate goal to maintain vigilance and support pipeline safety.
What is the best shift schedule right now in the present time to maintain vigilance, especially in a 24/7 pipeline control room? That question needs to be the driving force supporting decisions being made in real-time to support both the pipeline operation and the controllers.
Then, once decisions are made, these decisions need to be documented and communicated to affected parties to validate that your operation continued to maintain vigilance during this disruptive period, especially to ensure compliance with the PHMSA CRM Rule.
Find Support With Fatigue Management and Recordkeeping
From our conversations with pipeline operators through the years, we understand the challenges of maintaining a 12-hour shift schedule, even if it is preferred by controllers who are doing the work in the control room. This schedule has certainly been stretched and challenged during this year’s global pandemic.
More so than ever before, the challenge has pointed to the need for accurate recordkeeping and proactive fatigue management to protect the safety of the pipeline and the health of control room personnel.
That’s where EnerSys can help with optimizing the control room shift schedule. EnerSys offers industry-leading control room management software through our POEMS CRM Suite. Included in the CRM Suite is the FatigueMgr module.
FatigueMgr allows pipeline operators and control room managers to schedule shifts and monitor workload to help ensure controller alertness throughout their shift. Combined with an effective fatigue mitigation program, FatigueMgr enhances compliance with the CRM Rule by ensuring that controllers have adequate vigilance time during their shift and sufficient time for rest between shifts.
Additionally, the software module links to the documentation and reporting functions contained in the POEMS CRM Suite to generate necessary reports on workload, fatigue, and deviations to satisfy a PHMSA audit.
We would appreciate the opportunity to discuss the latest industry report on 12-hour shifts, how COVID-19 has affected your pipeline control room shifts, and how our software can help your operation continue to operate safely and in compliance during this time.