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Stay in the Yellow: Understanding Conditions of Awareness

I recently read a great blog post titled “If You’re in the Line of Fire, It Has the Right of Way” (see The post provides an account of a line-of-fire incident and covers the importance of situational awareness. The following three sentences resonated with me: “I believe line of fire hazards are most dangerous when we become task focused and subconsciously place our blinders on. Can you remember a time where you were immersed in your work and you became unaware of everything going on around you? It’s important to be engaged in our work, however we need to keep our head on a swivel, periodically checking our surroundings and rely on spotters to pass along information about changing conditions.”

Several years ago, I was introduced to a unique set of human performance concepts by Mr. Robert Feerst, founder and president of Utilities/Aviation Specialists Inc. Bob changed my approach to safety, specifically regarding awareness. He taught me that situational awareness is the knowledge we acquire about the risks associated with the environment we are operating in. Many of these risks are identified and discussed during the tailboard/job hazard analysis, and additional hazards may surface because our work environment often changes. However, it’s not enough to be aware of our situation and its associated risks; we also need to regularly refocus our minds and understand what mental condition of awareness we are operating in.

Conditions of Awareness
At any given moment, whether at work or at play, our mental condition of awareness can be identified by one of four colors: white, yellow, orange or red.

1. Condition White
This is our lowest level of awareness. When we operate in Condition White, we are unaware of what is going on around us. Some reasons why we fall into Condition White at work include stress, fatigue, cellphone use and thinking about family issues.

2. Condition Yellow
Condition Yellow is our most effective level of awareness. When we operate in this condition, our eyes, ears and instincts are working together. We are focused on the task at hand, but we are also scanning our environment for changing conditions and possible hazards. In an unfamiliar and crowded setting, if you move your wallet to your front pocket, you’re in the Yellow. When many of us were taught how to drive, our instructors told us, “Ten and two, and keep your eyes moving from side to side.” They were instructing us to stay in the Yellow.

3. Condition Orange
We have a heightened level of awareness when we operate in Condition Orange. Typically, we move into Orange because we need to concentrate on a specific task. There are few jobs that would get done properly without workers moving into Condition Orange. If we recognize when we must move into Orange, we can make a plan to ensure someone on our crew remains in Condition Yellow to watch our back.

4. Condition Red
In Condition Red, we are reacting or responding to an emergency or other abnormal situation. The original plan has changed, and there is minimal time to think about what is happening and respond to it. After we move into Red and the situation is neutralized, we need to call an all-stop, regroup and get everyone back into Condition Yellow.

Utilizing Awareness Conditions on the Job
With an understanding of these conditions, crews can identify Condition Orange tasks during their tailboard/job hazard analysis. We can start to recognize when someone will become task focused or drift into Condition White. Monitoring and communicating our condition of awareness is an excellent way to peer check one another and reset our minds (e.g., “I’m going into Orange; who’s in Yellow?” and “Get out of White because we need you in Yellow”). Below are two examples of how workers might utilize their understanding of the conditions of awareness.

Example 1
A lineman is flying up to begin work in the primary. While ascending, he scans his surroundings, operating in Condition Yellow. As he approaches the pole, it becomes necessary to correctly position his bucket, and he moves into Condition Orange. The lineman calls out to his designated qualified observer: “I’m going into Orange. Do you have my back?” The observer responds, “I’m in the Yellow. I’ve got your back.”

Example 2
A line crew is working a pole replacement project in a downtown area with a high degree of public activity. They have set up their work area, completed their tailboard and augured the hole; now they are ready to set the pole. As the pole is lifted off the ground, the operator notices one of the groundmen, Cody, looking at activity across the street, drifting into Condition White. The operator calls out to the groundman, “Cody, stay in the Yellow!” Cody gets back to the task at hand.

I have found these concepts to be very valuable, especially in an industry where people move around quite a bit. The concepts are portable and, with practice, easy to work into any safety culture. I use them in my everyday activities, whether I’m at work or in a restaurant, parking lot, school, airport or other location.

I want to thank the author of “If You’re in the Line of Fire, It Has the Right of Way” for inspiring me to draft this article. If we want to continue to make the line construction industry safer, it’s important for us to share our knowledge and personal experiences.

About the Author: Kevin K. Gribbon, CUSP, is an operations manager for Black & Veatch, an employee-owned engineering, procurement, consulting and construction company.

Kevin K. Gribbon, CUSP

About the Author: Kevin K. Gribbon, CUSP, is an operations manager for Black & Veatch, an employee-owned engineering, procurement, consulting and construction company.