A current debate we follow in the professional safety community is the concept of situational awareness. Some safety professionals say that it is essential to focus and pay attention to your surroundings to prevent you from being injured; others think that all we have to do is follow the “safety rules” consistently, and by doing so we will avoid all injuries and bad outcomes.
Truthfully, if you don’t have a sense of the task and the conditions of the jobsite you are working on, you may still suffer a serious injury or wreck something (usually something expensive and hard to get). Following safety rules and procedures is necessary to be in compliance with state and federal regulations; it’s not a guarantee that bad outcomes won’t happen. Situational awareness is on YOU!
First, let’s eliminate a misconception: there is a difference between safety and compliance. Compliance is adhering to published laws, regulations, consensus standards (like NFPA, ASME, ANSI) and company rules. Safety is a state of mind that says: “I’m not going to take risky chances to get the job done. I’m going to think about what I need to successfully complete my assigned tasks and follow safe work practices to get them done. I will plan my work, get the proper equipment to do the job efficiently (safely), and follow my work plan. If I run in to unexpected conditions, I will stop and assess what I need to successfully and efficiently complete the task; and get it if I need it.” Realistically, we need both.
You may not be in compliance with all the published laws, regulations, consensus standards and company rules, but nothing happened on the job to cause injury or damage. Why? You did not take risky chances. You were aware of the hazards of the job and jobsite and implemented appropriate controls to prevent the hazard from becoming an incident. This strategy has some flaws; you still can have a negative outcome for an organization (such as an OSHA violation).
Here’s how. You are working on a jobsite where you are exposed to a fall hazard (>6 feet above the next surface); maybe a trench or an elevated leading edge where no fall protection is set up. You recognize the fall hazard, so you think: “I need to stay at least 5 feet back from this edge.” You follow this self-made rule religiously. An OSHA inspector shows up and sees you near the edge and cites the employer for “failure to protect”. Actually, you should not have been near that edge to begin with.
Accomplishing both safety and compliance requires us to focus on what we are doing and maintain situational awareness when at work. It can be as simple as picking up a trip hazard (if you can) vs. stepping over it. It can be more complex as thinking “I don’t know how deep that puddle is, so I won’t walk through it.” Also, abstract thinking such as “There is a lot of moving equipment on this site, I need to make sure I have eye contact with operators if I move around and wear my high visibility vest.” A more complex task requires more thinking like: “I am going to do a confined space entry; what equipment and knowledge of the hazards do I need to perform my task in the space efficiently (safely)”? Some may call it “using your head,” and it’s so important!
Thanks to Encorus Group’s Safety Manager Tom Weisbeck for his contributions to this article.