Have you ever been walking down the street looking at your mobile phone -- perhaps reading emails or scrolling social media -- and then suddenly looked around and wondered how you got to where you were? Did you even notice anyone or anything around you along the way? During your walk, you may have crossed a street or gone through a construction zone, but were so concentrated on your phone that you never realized what was around you.
How does this happen? Simply put, while you were busy focusing on things other than your surroundings, you lost situational awareness.
We are all guilty of losing situational awareness at some point. Sometimes it’s while we’re walking down the street; sometimes while driving on the highway. When it happens, you open yourself up for a potential incident. You may step into the path of a construction vehicle or crash into the back of a tractor-trailer. Continuously maintaining our situational awareness helps keep us safe and alive.
What is situational awareness, and why is it so important?
Situational awareness is being mindful of your surroundings and the events or activities going on in those surroundings. It’s the process of listening to, observing, identifying, and understanding what is happening in the world around you. Situational awareness is an instinct that helps keep us alive. It is the mental process that causes us to pause and look both ways for vehicles before crossing, or being more alert when entering a dark room.
Every day, our brains take in millions of pieces of information, most of which is processed unconsciously. Without constant awareness of your surroundings, you cannot react quickly enough to keep yourself safe. When you pay attention to your surroundings, however, you can scan your environment to look for any possible hazards while maintaining the ability to conduct normal activities and behavior. It sounds easy, but it takes practice and training. You may not know exactly what you are looking for or if you are even paying attention to the right things.
This article outlines four steps for improving your situational awareness.
1. Pause periodically as you are doing activities you consider normal at home, work, or play.
Awareness is a choice. Once that choice is made, the part of the brain known as the Reticular Activating System (RAS) takes over. Located in the brain stem, the RAS is responsible for monitoring your senses and adjusting the filters that control your desire to pay attention. The RAS can be trained through practice and exercises; however, there are three main obstacles to overcome when developing your awareness.
- Not monitoring the baseline. The baseline is the most basic aspect of awareness. It is the state of what things sound, look, and feel like when your surrounding environment is normal. Being able to develop situational awareness is dependent upon knowing the baseline for your environment, recognizing any changes to it, and recognizing if they represent a specific threat to you. Recognizing these baseline changes are learned from listening and observing.
- Normalcy bias. Normalcy bias is a person’s state of denial which causes them to underestimate a situation, condition, or change in the baseline. It assumes that, since nothing bad has ever happened to the person as a result of that situation, condition, or change, nothing bad probably will ever happen. Normalcy bias can prevent us from acting to protect ourselves, so it is important to know how to overcome it. This can be accomplished by always taking any situation, condition, or change in the baseline seriously and looking at every change or factor as a potential threat to your safety. Overcoming the normalcy bias allows you to stop ignoring any changes or factors and begin making assessments of the actual risk.
- Focus lock. Focusing all your awareness on one single thing can cause you to block all other stimuli in your environment. This single-minded focus robs you of your awareness in times and places where you may need it the most. The best way to overcome this obstacle is to avoid obvious focus locks in areas where you are walking, driving, or performing any activity in areas where hazards may develop or be present.
2. Take in all the sensory input you can when you pause your activities.
Focusing on sensory input you are receiving allows you to understand what is taking place and assess if there is any threat to your safety. You can do this by listening to and observing things going on in your environment. Make note of all the markers (activities, people, objects, operations) around you and look for things that are different, odd, or out of place.
3. Orient yourself to the environment.
To determine if there is any risk to your safety, you must be able to establish your position in relation to all the factors in your environment and adjust accordingly. Unless you can identify an immediate threat that demands quick action, take the time to adjust yourself to your surroundings. This step allows you to determine your next action.
4. Take all information from listening, observing, and orienting and turn it into action.
This is the step during which you determine what actions you must take if you have determined there is a threat to your safety. All your knowledge, experience, and education or training should be used to make the best decision(s) to keep yourself safe. This can become second nature if you ask yourself, “What would I do if I encounter this situation, factor, or threat?” or “What actions should I take if I notice this change in my environment?” when performing different activities. Remember, it doesn’t benefit you to know what is going on around you if you are not willing or able to take the appropriate actions toward safety. If this practice is done regularly, you will know the best course of action when faced with different situations or conditions.
While we cannot control all the factors, conditions, and changes in our environment, we can control how we react to them. Situational awareness is an excellent skill to have and is one that can be developed through lots of practice. The goal is to practice situational awareness without realizing you’re doing it, and that can only be accomplished through repetition. Eventually, it becomes second nature to pick up on any abnormal changes or factors in your environment.
Practice these four simple steps described in this article to increase your situational awareness. Being more aware of your surroundings will prepare you for different situations and also enable you to be more present in your day.
Consider sharing these practices at your next safety meeting. Even one single moment of awareness could help save an employee from an incident.