What is situational awareness and why is it so relevant for industrial operations?
Situational awareness was originally a military term for a pilots operational status and knowledge of immediate threats. Today it is a widely used concept in all areas of life and business. It is used as a management strategy and technology framework to improve aspects like; risk, safety, energy consumption and production efficiency.
Situational awareness is the act of paying attention to what’s going on around you in terms of where you are, where you are supposed to be, and whether anyone or anything around you is a threat to your or others health, safety and performance. In more basic terms, situational awareness is known as the act of knowing what is going on in the environment and its implications for the present and the future (Endsley 1988).
Situational awareness in industry and operations
Businesses, especially in industries like construction and manufacturing are often complex and have a dynamic working environment. Things can often change quickly and situational awareness is vital to identify what needs to be done in order to make a decision or perform a task. Reaching a high level of productivity and quality is one of the most important objectives as is the safety of the workforce. If the full operational picture is not easily accessible it is more likely that there will be in-efficient productivity, disruptions to plans and accidents. In the process industry for example, situational awareness can mean the difference between identifying machinery, logistics or personnel problems before they occur or losing hours of expensive down-time.
Situational awareness regarding safety
When talking about situational awareness most people will link the term to safety. If you’re situationally aware, you’ll have a much better chance of predicting potential safety situations or preventing situations from escalating. Predicting and detecting danger is key in all areas of life from basic tasks like crossing a road to more complex tasks like managing safety in work environments. Enhancing situational awareness will enhance a persons preparedness and safety in all situations.
A lack of situational awareness can have severe consequences. In the mining industry powered haulage accounts for approximately 50% of fatal accidents every year. The vast majority of these accidents were initiated by loss of situational awareness or loss of control and resulted in the haul truck colliding with the environment. The results of a study in Springerlink suggest a need to investigate operator decision-making and organizational controls and to focus on improving design and operation controls such as mine design and operational procedures.
Planning is also a key component of situational awareness. For example having having a full overview of necessary maintenance jobs and setting a viable plan to ensure the jobs are completed in a timely and efficient manner will limit the potential of accidents. Similarly knowing what actions to take if an accident took place will likely reduce the impact of such incident. For example knowing what action to take if there was an oil leak, a chemical spill, an injury or a fire in the workplace will likely limit the impact. Creating a detailed action plan in advance will help you be prepared in the case of a real event.
Situational awareness in project or task management
Projects may be simple or complex but most projects deviate from planning to implementation to completion stage. Importantly, unforeseen issues or mistakes can lead to expensive time and cost implications. Situation awareness can limit the amount of deviations or stops the particular project occurs. The earlier adjustments are implemented the smaller the impact on the project progress. An example in operations is the maintenance on machinery which may have a number of sub-steps that need to be completed in a particular order. If the relevant people and resources are not available due to a lack of situational awareness the job can be delayed and have a large impact on production and safety.
Decision making & Human performance
Situational awareness determines whether a good decision can be made. A persons ability to access information, understand information, maintain attention, perceive needed information and project what will happen next will affect the decision. By proactively staying ahead of the situation and understanding the whole picture decisions can give the optimal results. Limited situational awareness can lead to inadequate decision making and inappropriate actions.
Research on air traffic controllers found that:
- 78% of problems “caused” by a lack of situational awareness were the result of a person not perceiving needed information.
- 17% were due to failure to understand the information they received.
- 5% due to failure to accurately project what would happen next with the information they received.
These statistics highlights how critical situational awareness and processing information correctly is for air traffic controllers but the same principles apply to any industry. For example a high level of situational awareness on oil and gas platforms can ensure that unsafe situations such as critical maintenance are recognised as early as possible and addressed in an efficient manner to optimise production and safety and not disrupt other critical processes.
Barriers to making rational and optimal decisions.
There are also numerous reasons and variables which can impact a persons ability to make the optimal decision. People are unique and all will address tasks in a unique way. Common barriers to decisions include; Only seeing or hearing what you expect to see or hear based on your expectations; Narrowing down the incident to one particular task or geographical area when a holistic approach is needed; Trying to multitask; Taking in too much information short term to made rational decisions; Being too quick to make a decision before evaluating all the data; Making incorrect decisions due to stress; Over confidence; Complacency; peer pressure; Distractions and all impact decisions. Being situationally aware will help make better decisions but the above barriers will likely impact optimal decisions.
Similarly many companies and workers struggle with risk tolerance and hazard respect and despite knowing the hazard exists choose to ignore it. Examples of this are in the production sector in oil and gas. In Construction accidents are also often linked to a lack of situational awareness. Work days are often varied and a lot of different things are happening day by day. People can get absorbed in their own thoughts or work plans and fail to spot those things that have a serious threat to health and safety.
Situational awareness and continuous improvement.
Perfect situational awareness ensures identifying and preventing all errors. In the real world it is impossible to negate all errors. However organisations who strive to improve their situational awareness and use it as a management tool to drive employee learning will benefit from identifying errors before they emerge and learn from negative situations that could have been avoided.
Software as a tool for situational awareness.
Information is key to facilitate awareness. If relevant information is not easily available mistakes are more likely. Software can facilitate situational awareness across an organization by making key information easily available. This in turn will improve that business’s efficiency of their operations while importantly improve the safety of their employees. Security, Life safety, Environmental monitoring and mass notification are all key elements of an effective system. The more easily accessible and understandable data you have at your disposable the more likely you will make effective decisions that do not deviate and have optimal results. Software solutions, monitoring technologies, and the integration of existing systems can ensure critical and understandable information reaches the right people in real time.
Excellent situational awareness improves all aspects of life. In business it is crucial to have the correct information and tools in place to assist personnel so that they have the full picture. By having the correct tools and knowledge in place this will undoubtedly lead to better planning, operational efficiency, reduced risk and better safety.