Situational Awareness: A Safety Miracle Cure?

I recently talked to a client who was trying to gain commitment for some safety leadership improvements and was frustrated with the resistance he was facing from some of the management team. The resistors claimed that most of their safety challenges could be resolved if the frontline employees just had better situational awareness.

Situational awareness sounds like a safety panacea. If only employees would consistently pay attention to their surroundings and their own actions. Being constantly alert would allow them to anticipate problems and adjust their behavior to avoid incidents. On the surface this makes a lot of sense. We all know that bad things can happen when people get complacent, so preventing complacency—being situationally aware—would certainly help. It’s a seemingly simple solution.

Ah, if it were only so easy. Unfortunately, we humans aren’t wired that way. Being fully aware of our surroundings takes deliberate and persistent effort. It is not our natural state when we are in familiar settings doing familiar tasks. It’s also not natural when we are concentrating on the task at hand.

That is not to say there is no merit in trying to help people be more situationally aware. There is. The question is how? To answer that we first need to define what situational awareness is. We all understand it at a high level, but what does it look like when someone is situationally aware? How do we teach it? How do we reinforce it?

There are probably many different ways to define it, but it ultimately involves having people frequently look around at their surroundings and the task they are doing and ask themselves questions like “What is around me? What are the hazards? What might change that would increase/change the hazards? What should I be doing to mitigate the risks?”

These are good things to do, however expecting people to do them continually is unreasonable. Identifying triggers to prompt them is important. Most companies have some such triggers. Pre-task risk assessments and Take 2 are examples of tools that prompt situational awareness behaviors. Another great tool was created by Captain L. David Marquet of the US Navy. He and his team developed what they call “take deliberate action.” This means when someone is about to do an important and/or high-risk task, they pause, and then say out loud what they are doing as they do it: “I’m turning the red handle to the left.” They found this really helps people pay full attention to their actions and ensure they are doing what they intend to do. Similar strategies are used in the commercial nuclear industry.

There are undoubtedly other strategies that serve to prompt situational awareness behaviors. Improving situational awareness is probably best achieved using multiple tools/strategies. The key is to make “situational awareness” visual—turn it into observable behaviors. That is the only way to teach it, and positively reinforce it, which is ultimately the only way to make sure it happens. And speaking of reinforcement, the best reinforcer for such behaviors is linking them to prevention—asking those who engage in “awareness” behaviors how those behaviors have, for example, helped them identify a threat to their safety and prevent an incident. If we can help people see that these behaviors that really work, they are more likely to keep doing them.

Posted by Judy Agnew, Ph.D.

As senior vice president of safety solutions, Judy spends her time helping clients create sustainable safety cultures. She also helps clients with strategy execution beyond safety, and general management and leadership improvement across cultural and generational differences.