If you Google “situational awareness” you will find approximately seventeen million hits, almost all of which will have acronyms (e.g., SLAM—Stop, Look, Assess, Manage; or OODA—Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) to help you remember to use common sense, sharpen your observational skills, and stay “in the moment.” Mark Montonara’s Safety First article on Human Performance in the Paper360° May/June issue stated that people make mistakes and that “situations where errors or mistakes are likely are predictable and manageable.” One important way to predict and manage these errors is to train yourself to be aware of the situation in which you find yourself.
So, should we be able to recite the license plate numbers of every vehicle in the parking lot like Jason Bourne was trained to do? Or maybe tell the occupation of a visitor by the condition of his hands and shoes like Sherlock Holmes? Or size up the guys in the bar and know immediately which one will start the fight like Jack Reacher? Of course not.
What we must do—whether on the job or driving down the road or just shopping at the local Piggly Wiggly—is continually asses our environment and, most importantly, focus on the moment. Here are some ideas to think about and put into practice:
1. Multi-tasking is your enemy. Do not do something stupid. There is nothing wrong with using your rearview mirror to check your lipstick or to see if there are any cookie crumbs in your moustache. What is wrong is doing this while driving at 70 mph. Using or talking on the phone while driving, especially texting or checking messages (or sports scores), is not only illegal in many states, but obviously not “being in the moment.” Even walking while texting is dangerous—so don’t do it.
2. Boredom is your enemy. Do not “zone out” because of the sheer repetition of what you are doing. In these cases, we tend to become immune to our surroundings, which means we are not aware of our situation. After an accident, you will often hear “Well, in retrospect, I should have…” (or perhaps “I shouldn’t have…”). It’s not “in retrospect” that is the problem. The problem is that it should have been just as apparent to you in the moment that whatever you were doing (or not doing) was not a good idea for the situation you were in. Your mind will easily wander unless you make the conscious effort to continually examine your surroundings. As with all learning, this ability to focus will take some practice, but you can teach yourself to SLAM or OODA.
3. Unfortunately, sometimes your neighbor or co-worker is the enemy. The people around you may become the problem; knowing what is normal behavior becomes critical. Is someone acting out of the ordinary? How would you know unless you know what their “ordinary” is? Maybe he is acting like a zombie because he has taken too many downers, or because he was up all night with a crying baby. If she appears hyperactive today, is this a cause for concern or just her normal Friday afternoon happiness? All have heard about workplace violence, and unfortunately you must be vigilant by continually being aware of your surroundings. Of course, we do not know the “ordinary” of the strangers around us in public places, but just being “in the moment” enough to evaluate people and their behavior may save a situation from deteriorating into a disaster.
Being aware of your surroundings takes practice. Our ancestors developed acute observational skills in order to survive. While today we are not tracking a mammoth to his cave (using sight, sound, smell, and hearing), we will be much safer when we have trained ourselves to assess the situation we are in. Practice watching for drivers around you using unsafe practices and anticipate what you might need to do in response. Practice looking for exits when you are in enclosed public spaces. Always be watchful for unsafe situations on the job site. Keep an eye out for new workers who may not be as well-trained yet as you. Be anticipating “what might happen if…” and “what I should do when…”.
Finally, as Sgt. Esterhaus stated before sending his officers out in Hill Street Blues, “Let’s be careful out there.”
Rachel Rutland is a certified occupational safety specialist with Safety Management Services, LLC and can be reached at [email protected].