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Improving maintenance of HVAC&R systems: a human error perspective

The aim of this article is to identify the possible human errors in the maintenance of HVAC&R systems. An understanding of human errors and their causal factors can assist in the reduction of maintenance failures. By Mfundo Nkosi

Maintenance can be viewed as a process of keeping or returning a piece of equipment to an operable condition. Now, maintenance tasks in refrigeration and air-conditioning systems should enable the systems to function at adequate levels of reliability and operability at reasonable costs.

During operation, the acceptable level of reliability of refrigeration and air-conditioning systems depends on the high-quality performance of the system’s technical components and personnel working on it.

Since the beginning of engineering, the engineering practitioners have focused their efforts on improving the technical components of a system, with less attention being paid to the humans working on it.

Human error

It is a known fact that nothing built by humans can operate issue-free until the end of its specified lifetime. However, adopting good maintenance practices can assist in improving the reliability and useful life of a system. Maintenance can be defined as those activities required to keep a facility in as-built condition and, therefore, continuing to have its original productive capacity. A higher standard of maintenance is dependent on the reliability of maintenance personnel. Therefore, there is a serious need to look at the impact of the human element when addressing issues pertaining to refrigeration and air-conditioning systems. Dhillon and Liu (2006) states that “human error in maintenance is a subject which in the past has not been given the amount of attention that it deserves.”

The questions that need to be asked to regard human error as a serious subject of scientific enquiry are as follows:

  • Who designs a system?
  • Who manufacturers a system?
  • Who installs a system?
  • Who operates a system? If it is operated through automation, then who programs a system?
  • Who maintains a system?

For sure, the answer to all the above questions is ‘humans’; therefore, the importance of analysing the impact of human errors in engineering systems is justified.

According to this study, “human error may be defined as the failure to perform a specified task (or the performance of a forbidden action) that could lead to disruption of scheduled operations or result in damage to property and equipment.” Based on many studies in human factor engineering, it can be approximated that equipment failures due to human error are about 80%, as opposed to technical failures. Figure 1, which was extracted from EFCOG (2007), presents the statistics of occurrence and contribution of human errors in engineering systems failure.

Fig 01
Figure 1: Why the human performance approach? (Adapted from EFCOG, 2007.)

The figure is an indication that more attention paid to equipment has significantly contributed to the decrease in failures due to technical causations, but leaves human error at a higher level.


It can be concluded that human error is a serious issue, which needs to be properly addressed in refrigeration and air-conditioning systems. Various problems are encountered in HVAC&R systems that can be directly linked to human error. These errors can be reduced or eliminated through raising awareness on human errors, improving supervision, and providing training.

Read the full article in the upcoming RACA Journal May edition coming soon. 


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