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Situational Awareness, Mental Modeling and Developing a Coach’s Eye

This month’s Tailgate Topic discusses and explains the relevance of situational awareness, mental modeling and developing a coach’s eye.

Situational Awareness
Poor situational awareness often is a contributing factor to events that cause or could have caused serious injuries and fatalities. It is rare that such an event occurs when everyone on the job is using their situational awareness skills.

Based on information from various institutions and specialists throughout our industry – including safety professionals at our own companies – situational awareness can be distilled into three primary forms: perception, comprehension and projection.

Perception is the art of observing what’s going on around you. To help create and maintain a safe work area for crews, it’s important to look for hazards before work begins, while it’s occurring and after any extended breaks. Document and discuss identified hazards and mitigation strategies during your daily job briefings and in your job hazard analyses. If a new hazard is noticed after work has commenced, stop work to appropriately address it.  

Workers typically notice two types of signs when they’re engaged in the act of perception. Positive signs are those clues that are seen and heard; negative signs are unseen or unheard. Indeed, the absence of certain information can be just as telling as the presence of information. If you sense that something is off or wrong in the work environment, even though you can’t see or hear it, pay attention to your instincts and investigate further.

Comprehension on the job site means that you spend time trying to make sense of the potential hazards – including stored energies – that you identified in the work zone. Taking time to understand the potential hazards and appropriate mitigation efforts means it’s more likely that everyone will go home safely after the work is done. 

In this context, projection means that you’re able to foresee what could happen – such as an incident or near miss – if hazards in the work area aren’t addressed. That foresight often requires a combination of knowledge and wisdom. I believe that it’s important to have knowledge, but it takes wisdom to be able to use your knowledge in the most beneficial manner.

Making a concerted effort to recognize stored energies and other hazards within the work zone – every time, on every job – will prepare workers to eliminate, mitigate or control those hazards so that no workers are hurt while performing their tasks.

Mental Modeling
Whether on or off the job site, we must be aware that hazards do not always reveal themselves. Personally, I have never heard a hazard say, “Psst, over here!” It is our responsibility to identify and address them. The ability to do so effectively is a result of education plus experience – not one or the other, but both. Workers must be trained on how to do their jobs well, which includes the skill to mitigate hazards through identification at the work site.

Situational awareness can be developed through what some refer to as “mental modeling,” or envisioning the work to be done, step by step, until completion. For example, if you notice an area on the job site where you think stored energy could be present, run through the work plan in your head and identify what could happen if the hazard isn’t effectively mitigated. Then, take the necessary steps to secure the area so that workers are safe to do their jobs. I’ve been using this method for 40 years, and I can tell you with confidence that it works.

Develop a Coach’s Eye
In nearly all instances of a serious injury or fatality, the person who was injured or killed never saw it coming. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have any situational awareness, but it does mean that they and others around them weren’t as observant as they could or should have been. Our work areas and the critical steps of our jobs can be dangerous if we don’t pay attention and follow the rules, and some of those critical steps are irreversible once they’ve been performed. In addition, we don’t always do the best walkarounds and job briefings, which help us to recognize those critical steps, their related hazards and how to control them.

There likely will never be a perfectly written job briefing, and I know that even the smartest person with exceptional situational awareness could be hurt or killed at their work site. So, that’s why it’s of utmost importance to prioritize your development of a coach’s eye, which is the keen eye of an observer. Situational awareness also necessitates self-checks, peer checks, stop-work authority and three-way communication. You must do all of these things to help keep yourself and your co-workers safe. It takes effort, engagement, and care for yourself, your family, your co-workers, your employer and the quality of your work. The goal each day is for everyone to go home safe and unharmed. That may not always be easy, but the effort is worth your life.

About the Author: R. Neal Gracey is a craft trainer and safety specialist for Henkels & McCoy. He works with younger, less experienced employees to assure that they don’t get hurt and that they learn to do their work right the first time, helping to ensure profitability and customer satisfaction.

Tailgate Topics

R. Neal Gracey

R. Neal Gracey is an operations training manager for Henkels & McCoy Inc., a MasTec company.