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The New Normal: How the COVID-19 Pandemic Changed Oil and Gas Operational Control Centers


The COVID-19 pandemic revealed an invisible threat to the operational efficiency of the oil and gas industry. As the virus made its way into the corporate sector, pipeline operators quickly realized that the physical security measures of operational control centers (OCC) were not impervious to the dangers of infectious disease.

Utilizing a contained space with shared equipment over long shifts, traditional OCC designs create an opportunistic environment for the spread of infectious disease once the location is exposed. In response to this newly recognized concern, NuGen Automation, a technology-driven designer of pipeline OCCs, assessed the traditional design to identify key weaknesses and modified the commonly accepted model with the addition of features to introduce an innovative design for the oil and gas industry — the Infectious Disease-Sensitive Mitigating and Response Technology (ID-SMART) Operational Control Center. By using existing technologies to constantly improve OCC capabilities, the ID-SMART design builds on the concept of isolation and layers technologies and mitigation strategies to not only support continued operations but improve the safety of the OCC environment without disrupting the necessary spatial requirements of an OCC.

ID-SMART OCC Philosophy

The world of control center safety has been plunged into a new reality that has the potential to influence future regulations for every operator, and the need for infectious disease mitigation measures in OCC design is no longer up for debate. The post-pandemic view of the industry will heavily feature considerations for how to avoid anything resembling the COVID-19 experience, and operators are quickly realizing that one of the most vulnerable areas of operations when it comes to infectious disease is the OCC. It is this recognition that led to the development and implementation of the ID-SMART OCC, the first of its kind to integrate infectious disease safety into OCC design.

Emphasizing industry and regulatory standards for oil and gas OCCs, the ID-SMART design scales traditional features while integrating infectious disease mitigation practices without interrupting operations. While multiple tiers of response can be achieved, the primary function of the ID-SMART design is to assist in isolating and protecting OCC controllers at various levels of concern.

Exposure is the greatest threat to an OCC environment, and the ID-SMART design optimizes existing technologies to isolate controllers from the most opportunistic environments in which exposure to infectious disease can occur. This means that an ID-SMART OCC can not only protect controllers from each other, but from other OCC and operational personnel without interfering with controller cooperation, cross-console awareness and daily OCC maintenance.

The ID-SMART design emphasizes isolation throughout its design as the key tactic for addressing the dangers of infectious disease. Varying levels of isolation are achieved to allow operators to determine their severity of response while customizing their OCC environment to best fit the situation at hand. This tiered approach to isolation allows the ID-SMART design to utilize space as efficiently as possible without expanding the space or budget required for such an OCC design.

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Isolation Throughout the OCC Environment

The most basic principle of the ID-SMART design is isolation, which is essential to mitigating infectious disease in any environment. As such, every feature of the ID-SMART design emphasizes isolation in some form, all of which create a more safety-conscious workspace when combined. While isolation is the foundation of the design, operators are able to choose which forms of isolation they employ at any phase of an infectious disease response, with each isolation technique offering a different layer of protection.

Isolation of the OCC Environment:

This high level of protection is accomplished by layering mitigation tactics in a way that provides operators with the foundational security of a traditional OCC while allowing them to deploy various measures singularly or simultaneously to achieve the preferred tier of infectious disease protection. One of the primary layers of mitigation is the removal of the infrastructure and non-controller personnel from the primary OCC environment. This segregation of controllers allows management to control where and how additional personnel interact with controllers and providing the ability to completely isolate controllers if necessary, thereby limiting exposure to minimum levels. Traditionally integrated features such as OCC-related management offices and server rooms are relocated outside of the primary OCC environment, eliminating unnecessary exposure to other personnel or potentially infected spaces.

Isolation within the OCC Environment:

The second isolation tier addresses potential exposure within the OCC itself and allows for the OCC environment to be dissected into individual quadrants, each of which provides isolation for its assigned controllers. This allows operators to not only isolate particular areas of the OCC and sets of controllers after a known exposure but in advance of potential exposure should the severity of an infectious disease pandemic necessitate the move. The ID-SMART design utilizes existing technologies so as not to reinvent the wheel while maximizing such features to create an environment that is less susceptible to exposure. When it comes to separating the OCC into quadrants, the ID-SMART design integrates glass walls between each quadrant with doors at the center of each wall. During normal operations, these doors can be kept open, and the glass walls allow controllers to move about the OCC without restriction; during pandemic operations, however, the doors can be closed to seal off each quadrant. This design provides controllers with multiple benefits to continue their operations without disruption, including being able to see one another through the walls as well as hear other controllers’ consoles in the event that a controller must take a break and asks for temporarily relief while away from the console. This allows for interaction without proximity and potential exposure.

Isolation among OCC Controllers

Understanding that most OCC environments have more than four consoles — and thereby would have more than one controller per quadrant — the ID-SMART OCC integrates physical distancing between individual controllers by design. Consoles are built with at least 10 feet of distance between them to stress individual workspaces. This allows controllers to maintain more than the recommended distance from each other during their shifts at all times, emphasizing their safety further when OCC quadrants are segregated and controllers must cohabitate within a particular quadrant. Should the risk be so high that further isolation is necessary between controllers within the same quadrant, the third layer of mitigation can be enacted: movable partitions that are otherwise folded against the exterior walls can be extended and positioned to create barriers between each console within a quadrant. When this layer of isolation is utilized, controllers are protected not only from personnel outside the OCC but from each other, thereby greatly reducing the potential for exposure during a shift.

Isolation via System Redundancy

Infectious disease can be airborne, in which case isolating the OCC from the rest of the personnel is not a guaranteed tactic because of shared building systems such as air conditioning. Addressing this concern with airborne exposure, the ID-SMART design utilizes redundant air conditioning systems so that the OCC is isolated from other systems used throughout the building to avoid external circulation. This not only removes exposure to air that has been circulated among other areas of the building but also provides consistent air conditioning for the OCC if the building’s primary air conditioning system fails.

RELATED: Spreading Safety Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic

Aside from being redundant in terms of exterior circulation, the air conditioning system design of the ID-SMART OCC allows for isolation of OCC environment quadrants, providing yet another layer of infectious disease mitigation. If exposure is either known to have occurred or assessed to be a high likelihood, in addition to isolating the OCC environment into quadrants, operators can isolate the ventilation of the OCC internal air conditioning system so that only those controllers in a shared quadrant breathe the same circulated air. This feature is key to the comprehensive isolation of an area and allows an exposed quadrant’s ventilation to be shut off to prevent the spread of an infectious disease to other quadrants while maintaining cooling or heating to the unaffected quadrants.

Further features create comprehensive independence from outside systems as well to avoid interruptions that could require troubleshooting by other personnel. An ID-SMART design includes fully redundant power, access, HVAC, and UPS systems, allowing controllers to safely stay on site as long as possible.

Isolation via Independent Technology

While isolation of an environment is necessary, the ID-SMART design also integrates isolation via independent technology and equipment. Perhaps the simplest of its features, independent technology addresses the most frequent form of exposure and allows operators to require controllers to come in physical contact with the fewest shared surfaces possible during their shifts.

Security Technology

Regulations require that OCCs be secured from unauthorized access. Operators can employ a number of methods to meet this requirement, many operators have moved beyond locks and keys to more modern technology. It is common for today’s OCC designs to include keypads that require controllers to enter a code or fingerprint scanners that only grant access to pre-authorized individuals, but these methods require controllers to touch surfaces that other controllers have touched every time they re-enter the OCC environment. Given that a controller on a 12-hour shift could leave the OCC environment four to five times in a shift for various reasons, this means that a single keypad or fingerprint scanner could be touched as many as thirty-two times over a single shift with four consoles. Therefore, such technology puts controllers at risk before they enter the OCC. To mitigate this risk, the ID-SMART OCC design emphasizes the use of technology that limits the amount of shared surface that a controller must touch to enter a control center via handsfree methods. Consequently, the ID-SMART design utilizes the most readily available technology to achieve this end with badge readers, which allows controllers to swipe their badges to gain entry without coming in contact with shared surfaces. Other technologies can achieve this level of mitigation, including biometric identification such iris scanners; however, such technologies tend to be cost prohibitive. Regardless of the chosen technology, the ID-SMART design implements an entry method that reduces exposure from the first contact with OCC equipment, including door entry.

Individual Computer Technology

While the isolation of the OCC environment, including individual consoles, is a primary function of the ID-SMART design, the nature of control centers in the oil and gas industry creates another potential exposure risk for controllers. Most controller shifts are between eight and twelve hours, meaning that for 24-hour OCCs, more than one controller will utilize an individual console’s equipment. This often includes keyboards, mice, monitors, and phones in addition to shared furniture such as chairs and desks. Unfortunately, this means that, regardless of the mitigation efforts made up to that point, each controller is potentially exposed to the shared surfaces with which a previous controller came in contact the most during the previous shift.

This type of exposure is difficult to address because traditional practice has controllers share console equipment, and any adjustment to equipment has the potential to disrupt a controller’s ability to access the SCADA system properly. However, thanks to modern advancements, many of the shared console equipment in question have plug-and-play capabilities. This allows certain equipment such as keyboards to be unplugged and plugged back in without disruption to system access. This capability allows controllers the ability to switch out the two most frequently used pieces of equipment and thereby allows each controller to have his or her own set of equipment to avoid further cross-exposure between controllers. This is easily achieved by providing each controller with an individual keyboard, mouse, and mousepad as well as an individual equipment locker for on-site storage, which is integrated as part of the ID-SMART design. Procedures should require each controller to access and connect his or her equipment to their console upon starting a shift and disconnect and store the equipment upon the end of shift. When combined with disinfecting procedures that include wiping down the console surfaces at the end and beginning of each shift, this plug-and-play cycle of computer equipment removes the most obvious and risky form of infectious disease exposure.

The Future of Infectious Disease Mitigation in OCC Environments

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the safety of OCC operations to the forefront of operators’ minds, and many operators were forced to mitigate risks and attempt to restrict exposure with little preparation. However, it is significant for the oil and gas industry to recognize that, while the pandemic was the first of its severity in the modern era of U.S. operations, it will not be the last. Infectious diseases pose a constant threat to the contained environments that are OCCs and by nature are difficult to mitigate. However, the honest efforts of our industry to move forward with available technology to prepare our personnel and operations for such threats shows the significance of such an achievement.

Launching the ID-SMART design on their own soil, NuGen Automation built the first iteration of OCC design in their Houston office where they monitor operators’ assets as a third-party control room operator. By implementing the advanced design, the technology-driven company has developed an understanding of the best ways to scale ID-SMART features to an operator’s individual needs and allocated space along with budgetary restrictions to ensure that operators of all sizes are able to achieve the infectious disease mitigation strategies that are the foundation of the ID-SMART philosophy. With the focus of OCC design including the invisible health threats that the pandemic has brought to life, the industry’s transition to the ID-SMART OCC is no longer a question of if but a matter of when.

Whitney Vandiver, Ph.D., is a compliance specialist for NuGen Automation and a Certified Pandemic Compliance Advisor.


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