situational awareness
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Situational awareness

A ‘separate dimension of hazard control’

February 21, 2021

As an emergency management instructor in the U.S. Air Force, Cory Worden taught the importance of staying vigilant against potential attacks, chemical/biological weapon exposure and other battlefield dangers.

Working in the health care industry after his military career, Worden realized that many of the same lessons he once taught also applied to helping keep workers in this field on their toes and alert – and ultimately safe. One of the most significant lessons he learned: Standard operating procedures, regulatory compliance, checklists and other preparations are powerless if people don’t react when it’s necessary. This means developing and fostering situational awareness is crucial.

Some employers struggle with understanding how their workers can become situationally aware or have a lack of awareness, said Rajni Walia, vice president of client engagement for DEKRA Organizational Safety and Reliability.

“Situational awareness is being mindful of changes in exposures as they occur,” Walia said. “An individual can’t be situationally aware 100% of the time, and that’s where the challenge is.”

Training and reinforcement

Situational awareness “creates a separate dimension of hazard control” because it requires specialized education, training and conditioning – or reinforcing exercises such as real-time simulations, Worden said.

The goal is to get workers accustomed to identifying hazards, understanding what actions to take, and knowing where to find needed equipment such as respirators and how to use it.

One training tactic the U.S. Air Force uses is the OODA loop – developed by late Air Force Col. and fighter pilot John Boyd. In safety, that process involves:

OODA loop

O bserving, or seeing hazards or threats
O rienting – recalling what hazard controls are available
D eciding, specifically which hazard controls to use
A cting

Another key concept for employee training is the “what if” strategy: identifying common situations that could prove hazardous and then considering ways to prevent or properly react to them.

“If we don’t train people to have situational awareness, then all the compliance and all the programs really don’t matter because they don’t get used in real time,” said Worden, now a safety advisor for the City of Houston Department of Health.

Training for situational awareness is part of a tiered, dimensional process, Worden said. After following all applicable regulations and implementing the Hierarchy of Controls, the third step is to “implement the full safety improvement cycle”: hazard analysis, hazard control, communication, leading and lagging indicators, investigations, and the use of a safety committee for engagement.

Associate Editor Alan Ferguson discusses this article in the March 2021 episode of Safety+Health's “On the Safe Side” podcast.

“With this implemented, exercises allow for real-time applications of the hazard controls and training, along with continued reinforcement of situational awareness,” Worden said. “In many cases, incidents occur because teams will implement regulatory compliance and then stop.” He added that sometimes employers don’t provide “consistent and frequent” communication to reinforce expectations.

“I think the key is it can’t be a buzzword,” said Kris Corbett, director of Atlas Injury Prevention Solutions. “It has to be something that is kind of dripped over and over so that it’s something that’s always in the forefront of people’s minds.”

Levels of awareness

A March 2012 article published by Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence platform and publishing company, detailed five levels of awareness:

  • Tuned out
  • Relaxed awareness
  • Focused awareness
  • High alert
  • Comatose

The article notes that people should be in the state of relaxed awareness as a default and compares it to the practice of defensive driving.

“You are relaxed and enjoying your drive, but you are still watching for road hazards, maintaining a safe following distance and keeping an eye on the behavior of the drivers around you,” the article states.

Relaxed awareness isn’t as mentally or physically draining because it’s a less stressful state than focused awareness or high alert.

Focused awareness is an acceptable level when encountering dangerous situations such as hazardous work environments. Being in a state of focused awareness allows a person to jump into high alert in the event of an emergency, while being comatose results from fear or shock that leaves a person overwhelmed, paralyzed or unable to function.

“What we know from anxiety and stress is that, essentially, what happens is it stops and blocks cognition,” Walia said.

Brain-centered hazards

Stress is one of the seven brain-centered hazards identified by DEKRA that can hinder workplace safety and decrease situational awareness, Walia said. The others: fast-brain functioning, fatigue, memory, social think, distraction or divided attention, and visual recognition.

Fast-brain functioning occurs when we perform repeat tasks or routines. Because of our need to conserve the brain’s energy, we sometimes don’t fully think about what we’re doing as we take on these tasks. Walia gave the example of a 10- or 15-minute trip in the car and not recalling how you arrived at your destination.

If we don’t train people to have situational awareness, then all the compliance and all the programs really don’t matter because they don’t get used in real time.

Cory Worden
City of Houston Department of Public Health

Be active

As an example of social think – “our innate need to go along with our group prevents us from approaching others” or speaking up when needed, according to DEKRA. Walia said: “Say you and I are working together. If we’ve been working for a long time, I will be tempted to not say something because I’m just going to assume you’ve seen the hazard or the exposure in front of you. I also may be part of a culture that while I am encouraged to speak up, in practice that behavior is condoned or frowned upon.”

Distraction or divided attention often occurs when people try to use their cellphones or text while driving. “What research shows – whether or not people believe it – our mind can only fully focus efficiently on one task at a time,” Corbett said.

Visual recognition is detailed in a February 2019 Safety+Health article, Seeing’ safety in a new way, focused on visual literacy.

Walia explains: “We tend to look at and validate what we want to see. So, if our brain is saying, ‘Yep, this is what it always looks like,’ essentially it’s playing that trick on you to say, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I see,’ when in fact, it could be something different.”

And as for brain-centered hazard stress, or urgency from external or internal sources, an example of the former source is how messages are delivered to workers, she said.

“While my manager may tell me that safety is important, if they talk about deadlines or production targets with more emotion, my brain says, ‘Just do whatever it takes to get the job done, as that is what my manager cares about more.’”

This reaction from the brain can cause workers to rush through a task and potentially overlook exposures or dangerous situations.

How to help

For internal stressors that employees may bring to their job, such as thinking about a sick parent or child, employers can help by establishing and maintaining open lines of communication.

“It really is culture, improving that supervisor-employee culture,” Corbett said. “And that’s to say, ‘Hey, how are you today?’ or ‘How are you feeling?’ And to actually be able to get that dialogue of, or folks feeling safe to say, ‘You know what, I’m not OK today. My son’s in the hospital,’ or ‘I’ve got this going on.’”

Some potential ways to approach this situation – from an employer’s perspective – are to offer to come back and check in with the employee, stay apprised of their circumstances away from work, and perhaps put them on a different job or task.

The key, Corbett added, is “to recognize that if someone’s going through something, it’s going to be tough to keep their mind on task.” Another step is having employee assistance resources available.

Along with communication, giving employees autonomy to make decisions when needed can help with situational awareness and getting them to “trust their instincts.”

“One of the biggest things about that is safety needs to be decentralized,” Worden said. “We want to decentralize decision-making so that when people are able to identify those situations, then they can make the best decision in real time, even if no one is around to give orders.”

What workers can do

One way employees can help themselves is to understand or recognize when and how they might lose focus or go on “autopilot.”

In the April episode of S+H’s podcast “On the Safe Side,” SafeStart Senior Safety Consultant Tim Page-Bottorff described one technique discussed in his presentation, “Four Life Lessons From a Traveling Zombie,” called critical error reduction.

“The best way to start is to predict at the very beginning of the day and ask yourself, ‘When am I most likely going to make a mistake, where will it be and what time will it be?’” Page-Bottorff said.

He explained that the predictions then allow workers to recognize the moment(s) when they need to raise their awareness. “It’ll help you get out of those zombielike moments.”

Corbett detailed another quick technique workers can use to pull themselves out of “autopilot” called “S.T.O.P.”:
Take a breath
Observe your surroundings
Proceed with awareness

“Taking a deep breath, believe it or not, it actually pulls your brain out of autopilot physiologically,” she said. “There’s something to utilizing that deep breath and utilizing your senses. It’s a different part of your brain that gets engaged and pulls you out of autopilot.”

Another problem, of course, is avoiding distractions such as using a cellphone while driving or walking around a warehouse while wearing headphones.

Worden said if a worker isn’t following rules to stay free of distraction, employers have “an obligation to make sure everything that we do is fair and just and that we’re providing safe conditions, safe practices, training and education.

“Then, if something happens, it’s an obligation to go back and reinforce the rules and making sure we communicate it, give them every opportunity to do it safely.”

If, after doing all these things, an employer finds the person actively chose not to follow the protocols, then it’s “very equitable” for the worker to be held accountable for their behavior, Worden said.

Employers should emphasize the importance of staying distraction-free, focused and aware.

“A lapse in awareness could be what causes a small or catastrophic mistake that can change someone’s life forever,” Corbett said.