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Take Off Those Blinders: The Importance of Situational Awareness

Some days I feel like a broken record with my apprentice. “Watch out for …,” “Keep in mind …” and, of course, the much more emphatic “Hey, hey, hey, you can’t …” Those of us who work in the field on a daily basis and are responsible for the training of less experienced workers know this feeling well. So, how do we train our workers, keep them safe and still be productive? To me, it comes down to one simple phrase: situational awareness.

What is situational awareness? I am constantly using the analogy of blinders on a racehorse to describe it. All those horses care about is what is directly in front of them as they run down that track. In our line of work, that way of thinking is dangerous. It is easy to talk about the scope of a job and identify hazards, but once work starts, the situation changes and a worker’s field of vision may shrink. Sometimes there is so much going on in your working environment, or you become so absorbed in your own thoughts, that you fail to spot those things that could pose a serious threat to your health and safety.

Three Subcategories
I have divided the concept of situational awareness – or at least the way I perceive it – into three subcategories: hazard recognition, scope change and complacency. I have found that workers are much more positively impacted when you touch upon each topic individually prior to the job.

Hazard recognition is something all of us do subconsciously (i.e., without realizing it), but that is not enough. It’s not until we put a greater focus on recognizing hazards from the start, and an added focus on the little things that many do not perceive as hazards, that we will really start to positively affect worker safety.

Scope change and complacency go together, so let’s take a look at them in that context. Scope change occurs when something comes up after the start of the job, and then everyone on the job needs to recognize the new situation and make the necessary adjustments. Complacency, or being comfortable with what is occurring right in front of you without giving it too much thought, will never let you fully identify scope change. If an issue arises after the start of the job, we must stop what we are doing and begin the process of situational awareness over again. Otherwise, we will continue to think the issue that came up is no big deal – and that is when we likely will have accidents.

Complacency needs to be addressed and guarded against on an institutional level, and I don’t mean just by your company or safety man. It needs to be addressed by you, by me, by everyone – every single day. Complacency toward the job is an underlying factor in almost every single accident. We all must find a way to fight complacency, not only for ourselves but also for those we work with. Our line of work has institutional complacency built into it by the way we talk to one another about the job we are about to perform. One of the biggest ways to counteract this is to try to avoid using what I refer to as “trap phrases.” These kinds of phrases – such as “real quick,” “let’s just,” “knock this out” and “it’s only” – lead to problems. They instill thoughts of “easy” and “not hazardous” with regard to the job that is about to occur, and thus lead to complacency. We have to choose our words carefully and ensure we never forget the task at hand, the hazards that exist and our training to work safely around them.

Act ‘SLIM’
One way we can keep our heads clear and stay safe during both routine tasks and high-stress times is to act “SLIM.”

SLIM is an acronym that stands for stop, look, identify and manage. These four categories – if covered before the job starts and if discussed during the hazard analysis portion of the job – will go a long way toward keeping you and your co-workers safe during the job. Following is a brief breakdown of each of the four categories.

  • Stop: Engage your mind before your hands. Visualize the task and be sure you understand what needs to be done before you start working.
  • Look: Carefully observe your work location to find any hazards.
  • Identify: Point out the effects that the hazards could potentially have on you and your co-workers. Ask yourself if you can complete your task safely.
  • Manage: What are the options you have to mitigate any hazards prior to the start of work, and can the crew still continue the job as planned?

If all four of these items are discussed, and there is consensus among the group, only then is it time to go to work.

It’s easy not to have your head in the game in this line of work. Outside influences – such as your home life, your boss, weekend plans and the new apprentice – are distractions that can easily steal our focus. We must continue to train ourselves to stay situationally aware every single day. We need to make sure we never have our blinders on to the hazards around us. Staying situationally aware and refusing to become complacent will help you and your crew get the job done right and go home safely every time.

About the Author: Jeffrey Sullivan is a journeyman lineman at Duke Energy in St. Petersburg, Florida. He started his career over a decade ago with Public Service Company of New Hampshire, learning overhead, underground and network distribution line work. Sullivan currently participates on the statewide and local safety committees for Duke Energy in Florida.

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Jeffrey Sullivan

About the Author: Jeffrey Sullivan is the director of safety and training for Homosassa, Florida-based F&H Contractors. He has been working in the electrical utility industry since 2001, first for two large utilities prior to transitioning to his current role. Sullivan has experience in overhead and underground line construction and maintenance as a journeyman lineman and foreman, and more recently with utility engineering and design management.