“Pay Attention!” “Be aware of what’s going on around you!” “Listen!” How many times did you hear these words when you were growing up? Little did we know, we were developing our sense of situational awareness. Having a sense of what is happening around us allows us to create a mental picture, or baseline, of what is normal in our environment and what, if anything, could cause us harm. This allows us to determine the required action(s) for that moment. These actions enable us to stay safe from harm.
What is Situational Awareness?
Simply put, situational awareness is being aware of your surroundings and what is going on in those surroundings. It’s the process of taking in sensory information and using it to identify and understand what is happening in the world around you.
Why is Situational Awareness Important?
When you are paying attention to what is around you, you are looking for any possible hazards that may present a danger to you while maintaining the ability to conduct normal activities. If you can learn how to listen to sounds in your work environment, such as a forklift, crane, or other equipment, noises and alarms won’t become background noise. You will stay aware of any changes in the sounds around you and be able to identify hazards that may be present and pose a threat to your safety.
Hearing vs. Listening
Some people make the mistake of believing that hearing and listening are the same. While it is true that both are done using your ears, there are a few important differences.
- Hearing is the act of receiving sound and vibrations through your ears
- It is one of your five senses and happens continuously
- It is a passive process and happens whether you like it or not
- When you hear, you use your ears only
- Listening is choosing what you want to hear
- It is concentrating on what you hear to process its meaning to understand the sounds coming to your ears
- Listening is an active process
To help keep yourself safe while working, develop your ability to listen. Improving this ability, especially in a loud environment, is just like any other skill — it takes practice. Listening is not only done with our ears, but also with our brain. There is a part of the brain known as the Reticular Activating System that is responsible for monitoring the senses. This system, just like any other part of your body, can be developed. Whenever you hear different sounds and can’t tell the difference between them, try adjusting your hearing to different noise levels, or when you are in a noisy location, try exercising your ears by listening for different sounds, focusing on what you hear, and tuning out any background noises.
Preparing Yourself to Actively Listen
Whenever you enter a work area or are doing some type of work, stop and focus your hearing and listen to the sounds around you. Block out any distractions, like background activity, and focus your hearing on individual sounds. Don't be distracted by your thoughts or feelings, and do what you can to make sure your focus isn’t interrupted. Be attentive, but relaxed when you stop to listen. Give your full attention to the sounds you are hearing and allow your mind to create a picture of those sounds. Your brain will do the necessary work if you stay focused. Immediately force yourself to refocus if your thoughts start to wander.
While we understand we cannot control all the factors, conditions, and changes in our environment, we can control how we react to them. Situational awareness is a great skill to have and learning to pause and listen to sounds around you is an essential step in using that skill. When you stop to listen and understand the sounds you hear and use situational awareness to assess if any of those sounds pose a hazard, you are taking an active approach in keeping yourself safe.