Up next in our series on the Four Factor S.A.F.E. model (having reviewed Stays in Control in the last two posts) is the second letter in the acronym, A. This letter stands for the Aware of Surroundings factor, which consists of multiple components. These components include attention to details, alertness over time, multi-tasking ability, and working (or short-term) memory. An individual’s overall level of awareness is a combination of these pieces, and how they interact can lead to different abilities and behaviors.
For example, someone might be good at paying attention to details in general, but if they can’t multi-task well, they’re stuck focusing on one or two details and end up missing the big picture. Or what about a worker who has a great memory and can recall all of the hazards related to a specific area or process, but has trouble staying alert? Having all the safety-related knowledge in the world doesn’t help someone who can’t stay awake or on task. We all have somewhat different levels of overall awareness in terms of our personal SafetyDNA, and this influences how well we can demonstrate these behaviors in everyday settings.
If you closed your eyes right now and thought about your workspace, how many details can you recall? Is the picture in your mind pretty empty, or are you able to remember specific items and images? If you can paint a detailed picture in your head, you probably have a pretty good long-term memory. If you can look at a picture for the first time and recall most objects in it immediately afterward, your short-term memory is probably pretty good as well. This also means you pay a decent level of attention to details, otherwise, you might not be able to remember as much.
But what about your level of alertness? Do you often catch yourself getting distracted, or maybe even nodding off on the job from time to time? Do you find that you are often daydreaming on the job? If so, that might mean you have some work to do on your ability to stay alert over time. Finally, how would you rate your multi-tasking skills (technically speaking, switching quickly from one task to another, which is a more accurate description)? Are you able to pay attention to more than one task or responsibility at a time? If so, do you ever notice a dip in the quality of your output when working multiple things at once? If you can maintain the acceptable standards of quality for tasks you’re completing at the same time, your multi-tasking is likely up to snuff.
Why is this important for safety? Because research shows that employees with higher scores on tests of awareness factors are significantly less likely to be injured on the job. This should come as no surprise, since those who are more aware, have better memory, and are more detail-oriented can more easily identify and avoid hazards, thereby helping them to avoid injury. Studies have shown these findings in diverse industries, such as chemical, electrical, manufacturing and the military.
While our natural awareness levels are fairly stable over time, it does not mean that we can’t create habits that will help us be more aware. If you think that you might be lacking in one or two of these areas, or if you’re a supervisor and can think of an employee who could improve in this area, there are ways to improve your ability to be Aware of Surroundings.
Set a goal to deliberately look around your work environment at certain time intervals, maybe every 15 or 30 minutes. Make an effort to look over as much as you can, and commit certain objects or layouts to memory, and then see how well you can remember everything later. This can help develop better attention to detail and short-term memory, and occasionally checking your worksite for any hazards is a good habit to get into, in general.
If you’re struggling with doing multiple activities at once, try to set up a system that allows for practicing without affecting your actual work. Try to master each task or skill separately before trying to do them at the same time, and then introduce the second task in slow, small time periods. Also, see if your co-workers or supervisors can share any strategies. The people that do the same work as you often come up with their own ways of doing things in a more efficient manner, and they might be able to help you as well.
If you can’t seem to stay alert on the job, there may be external factors to consider first. If you’re constantly nodding off, try to adjust your schedule to get more sleep. Diet and exercise are also important. If you’re easily distracted or prone to daydreaming, make a point of being more conscious about when you start to drift away, and then you can start to recognize when it’s happening in the future.
It isn’t always easy to make big changes to work behaviors, but if you think that you should improve your overall awareness, try to figure out specifically where you could improve. Identifying the gaps, or “blind spots,” is the first step to fixing them, and it will go a long way towards strengthening your safety practices. Each part of the S.A.F.E. model is critical for successful workplace safety, but it’s especially difficult to Stay in control, Follow rules, or Exhibit caution if you aren’t first Aware of your physical environment and potential hazards around you.