Situational Awareness Can Prevent Accidents

Workers must remain alert to what is going on around them to stay safe on the job site

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A short scene in a recent episode of a hit TV cop show had little to do with the plot but did illustrate a safety issue that is often overlooked. Wanting to question a man about a murder, two detectives went to his workplace and found him several stories up on a scaffold painting a factory wall.

Unable to get his attention, the two cops played rock-paper-scissors to see which one would get on a lift and go up to question the man. That was the first safety lesson, by the way. The attractive female cop lost the bet because she ignored operational experience — the fact that her partner always picks rock.

The bigger issue, and our main point, is that the man was completely oblivious to a pair of armed officers screaming at him from below. He was a few stories up, facing an expansive brick wall and wearing earbuds as he rocked out to his favorite tunes. He had no clue that anything unusual was happening. Later, unaware that the detective was standing next to him on the lift, the worker jumped in surprise when she poked him in the back and he nearly fell from the scaffold.

It’s called situational awareness, or SA. The guy was unaware of anything going on around him. What if someone was trying to warn him of danger? Totally innocent in the plot of the show (the long-lost illegitimate son did it), he could easily find himself an unfortunate victim of a completely avoidable workplace accident.

There are many definitions of SA, many of them rather complex …

  • “The perception of elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning and the projection of their status in the near future.” (Endsley, 1995)
  • “A state achieved when information that is qualitatively and quantitatively determined by given configuration as suitable for assumed role is made available to stakeholder by engaging them in appropriate information exchange patterns.” (Sorathia, 2008)

And some quite simple …

  • “What you need to know not to be surprised.” (Jeannot, Kelly, & Thompson, 2003)
  • “Knowing what is going on so you can figure out what to do.” (Adam, 1983)

The Health and Safety Executive, the United Kingdom’s workplace safety body, explains it like this: “Often there is so much ‘going on’ in your working environment or you become so absorbed in your own thoughts that you fail to spot those things that could pose a serious threat to your health and safety.”

But SA goes beyond watching for changing conditions. If you are supposed to fix a leaking pump but there is no evidence of a leak, maybe you’re at the wrong pump. Is the person you’re working with today new to the job? You may have to slow down and do some coaching along the way. Have you or your team become complacent about quality or safety? Maybe it’s time to brush up your human performance tools.

In its SA training, the Coast Guard points out that 40 percent of navigational accidents are due to the loss of situational awareness. Its tactics for preventing it:

  • Be alert for deviations from standard procedures.
  • Watch for changes in the performance of other team members.
  • Be proactive; provide information in advance.
  • Identify problems in a timely manner.
  • Show you are aware of what’s going on around you.
  • Communicate effectively.
  • Keep abreast of the mission status.
  • Continually assess and reassess the situation.
  • Ensure that all expectations are shared for complete awareness by the whole team.

Situational awareness. It really comes down to paying attention to what you’re doing.


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