Situational Awareness in Electrical Safety and Human Performance
By: Mike Enright
Consistent Practice of Stop, Look, Assess and Manage
There aren’t many players who can be given a monthly highlight reel, but if you’ve watched baseball in the past couple years, you’ve likely seen one for Cubs player Javier Baez. With an insane tag, throw, or baserunning choice that makes you look twice seemingly every game, many like to label him as a “high baseball IQ” player. Baseball pundits regularly praise him for his ability to slow the game down, know exactly where he and everyone else on the field is, and understand how each play will progress.
What Do Baseball IQ and Situational Awareness in Electrical Safety Have in Common?
This, however, isn’t just a player making high-risk, flashy plays. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. His plays are both smart and well-executed. Baez seemingly knows exactly how much time he has to set his feet and make a throw based on the person running. But what does the actions of a baseball player mean for electrical safety? A lot more than you think.
When someone talks about “high baseball IQ,” what they really mean is that a player is able to take years of experience getting the basics right and apply it to the situation at hand. It’s based in a concept called situational awareness, something that applies to everything from sports to safety to life in general.
Following our recent blog on the human performance standard in NFPA 70E, we would today like to turn our attention to situational awareness, purposefulness, and explore how it can make your people safer when working around electrical hazards.
Understanding Situational Awareness
Situational awareness is being aware of what is happening around you in terms of where you are, where you are supposed to be, and whether anyone or anything around you is a threat to your health and safety. Everything we have learned impacts it—knowledge, experience, and education enable us to understand the environment we are working in, make decisions based on the scenarios provided, and instruct others.
Unique to Each Worker
Knowing this, a worker’s situational awareness is unique to his actions, often making it hard to track and train. Two workers can approach the same problem and follow the same processes as required by a safety program or manual, but one may be able to recognize a normally unforeseen hazard.
In the same way that two baseball players at the same position with the same experience can be vastly different in their ability to read a situation and react, your employees are also different in their ability to approach maintenance.
Situational awareness is only as accurate as our own perception or reading of the situation, so what we think is happening may not accurately reflect reality. How we read a situation can be influenced by many things such as the type of information we have been given, our own experience and distractions in the workplace.
How to Influence Situational Awareness
In a recent Safety and Health Magazine article, experts from DEKRA discussed the concept, what affected a worker’s ability to be situationally aware, and discussed best practices for including awareness into employee actions.
Authors noted that the term “situational awareness” is often used when people miss something important at work that leads to an injury or operational failure or slowdown. However, it’s much more than that, as there are a variety of factors that affect a worker’s ability to remain aware.
Fast Brain and Slow Brain: Staying out of Autopilot
Think of all the factors that can impact awareness: fatigue, the cognitive loading involved in a particular task, the various distractions all around us, not knowing and, working in what authors call “fast brain mode.” As explained in the article, fast brain mode is a method of energy conservation in which our brains operate at the subconscious, or non-thinking, level. In this, our brains are on autopilot, making processes like brushing our teeth or even driving to work less rational and more energy efficient.
The Challenge: Communicating and Promoting Awareness
For these reasons, it’s prudent that organizations proactively promote situational awareness, especially for tasks with inherent serious injury or fatality potential.
Unfortunately, you can’t just ask workers to “remain situationally aware,” as this will be met with skepticism and flawed execution. Telling someone that they need to be more aware is like asking your significant other whether they are paying attention.
We need to consider how we can improve situational awareness when it matters most. When unplanned events occur, there almost always are precursors that may seem obvious in hindsight but were fully missed.
Promoting Situational Awareness
A strategy that works well is embedding prompts through critical work tasks that spark a worker to look for hazards and exposures, and to detect change. This will engage the slow brain to help workers think through their actions more thoroughly, overcome “social think” and approach others about safety.
This starts with increasing understanding about attention, creating a sense of responsibility for the health and safety of everyone, and focusing on slowing down things around you. One of the many ways to make this happen is by promoting the SLAM Technique, which consists of the following four steps:
- Stop: Engage your mind before your hands. Look at the task in hand.
- Look: at your workplace and find the hazards to you and your teammates. Report these immediately to your supervisor.
- Assess: the effects that the hazards have on you, the people you work with, equipment, procedures, pressures and the environment. Ask yourself if you have the knowledge, training and tools to do the task safely. Do this with your supervisor.
- Manage: If you feel unsafe stop working. Tell your supervisor and workmates. Tell your supervisor what actions you think are necessary to make the situation safe.
Make Situational Awareness Part of Your Culture
Situational awareness is a vital concept in protecting the health and safety of your workers, and as mentioned in Annex Q of NFPA 70E, workers may become too familiar with common tasks and become less observant to the real risk still prevalent in some situations. Such perceived behavior can cause what is commonly called "unintended blindness" and/or insensitivity to the hazards of the job.
To address the challenges that exist, you must help your employees understand how mistakes happen, implement controls, and ultimately promote purposefulness and slow thinking as part of your workplace safety culture.
Developing a Culture of Electrical Safety explores the differences between a compliant program and a true culture of safety while offering tips that can make your people safer. Preview this guide below and download it here.
One Thing That Should Become Fast Brain Thinking? Electrical PPE.
If your goal is to increase the safety of your workers, they need to become more aware of their surroundings, reducing the amount of autopilot thinking that exists when working on electrical equipment. One thing that they shouldn’t have to think twice about? Putting on electrical PPE.
The decision to put on the right electrical PPE for the job should become automatic, and if your workers are thinking more about how much they hate their PPE than they are about even the most routine task they have to complete, it may be time to rethink your electrical PPE program. At Enespro PPE, our goal was to reinvent electrical PPE by introducing USA made products with new features & benefits that will help safety professionals solve the many complaints workers have about wearing electrical PPE. We designed a complete line of arc flash PPE in 8, 12, 20, 40, 55 and 65 CAL with extremely lightweight fabric systems, venting for extra breathability, clear face shields with large viewing windows to improve visibility and even our storage bags are custom made with an area to protect the face shield from damage.
Learn more about our complete range of innovative electrical safety products and subscribe to our newsletter for all of the latest Arc Flash safety news.
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