Lack of or loss of situational awareness is a phenomenon that time and time again is described as the underlying cause of numerous accidents and incidents.  This article exemplifies the phenomenon and provides ideas on what to look out for if lack of awareness is to be avoided. It also argues that the most important thing to be aware of is the awareness of our awareness and to ‘combat’ colleagues who are ‘switched off’.

Depending on the situation, awareness of the needed human awareness levels is pivotal. Seafarers cannot be ‘switched off’ during work. In critical situations, (this also includes standard operational tasks) seafarers have to understand how to stay aware, not allowing themselves and their colleagues to be distracted and how to respond to loss of situational awareness.  

The ‘Coach Driver’ syndrome

How many of you reading this article can recognise the feeling of driving a car and suddenly realising that you did so without any reflection or conscious awareness? The driver has in other words been driving without any conscious thinking about how the driving was performed.

The phenomenon can be defined as the ‘Coach Driver’ syndrome – you are driving but not thinking about how you are driving. The ‘Coach Driver’ syndrome is both normal, human and to be expected. Humans float into a relaxed state of mind without rational reflection or worries.

Despite the fact that the ‘Coach Driver’ syndrome is to be expected and considered very human, the question is if it is acceptable? Can we accept that most of what goes on during work remains unnoticed? The obvious answer, when working on board a vessel, must be: No. We cannot accept this – especially if we are to learn. We need to understand and manage our awareness.

Our safety awareness influences how we perceive reality and to what degree we are in contact with our actual safety performance

Examples of awareness levels

To understand levels of awareness let us try to exemplify the awareness phenomenon using the driving example again. The list below illustrates various levels of awareness:

1. Switched off – You are using your mobile phone while driving
2. Relaxed awareness – Keeping an eye on traffic and continuously making adjustments
3. Focused awareness – It is snowing, the road is sticky and you are focused
4. Emergency modus – Your car slides and you are trying to regain control
5. Coma – You have lost control over your car and you are passively waiting for the final outcome

It goes without saying that level 1, 4 and 5 is undesirable. We would of course prefer being at level 2 but the fact is that anyone should be ready for level 3. Being at level 1 during work is unacceptable and any seafarer observing a colleague in a ‘switched off’ modus has to react and intervene. The ‘switched off’ modus is in other words worse than the ‘Coach Driver’ modus. Being switched off is allowing yourself to be distracted deliberately. This is unacceptable.

Being ‘switched off’ erases the potential anxiety needed to be safe The American philosopher John Dewey argued that humans first think when they are confronted with problems but he also claimed that humans feeling anxiety will stimulate a reaction. When looking at the awareness levels above it is not hard to understand that any ‘switched off’ person will not see any potential problems nor feel any anxiety. The simple reason is that he/she doesn’t notice what is going on.

Never take it for granted that the conditions under which you are working are 100% safe. Always be aware of changes or conditions threatening your safety

The first step towards being safe is therefore to combat that anyone is ‘switched off’ during situations that – objectively – possess hazards and risks. We need to understand what awareness level is required and intervene when we see visible signs that colleagues are ‘switched off’ thus resulting in lack of situational awareness.

Full understanding of reality requires focus. A seafarer’s safety awareness decides the likelihood of understanding what is truly going on

Be aware of your awareness level

The introduction to this article stated that the awareness of our awareness is pivotal. Seafarers cannot be ‘switched off’ during work. In critical situations (this also includes standard operational tasks) seafarers have to understand how to stay aware, not being distracted and how to respond towards others’ or own loss of situational awareness. To provide the reader with examples of loss of situational awareness (switched off) the list below shows some typical behaviours or situations:

Talking about anything else than the job
Confusion or bad ’gut feeling’
Hasty, superficial or no communication
No one is ‘looking out’ for hazards and risks (Go-Getter’s)
Not doing the job as agreed
Certain things don’t match up
Unclear communication
In critical situations letting yourself be distracted

All these examples are behaviours or feelings that ship crews have to keep an eye on and – if they occur – respond to. Not being hurt doesn’t mean that we are working safely. Maybe we are just not aware of what is going on and therefore not aware of the hazards and risks in our working environment. This is not an acceptable working condition. Be aware of crew awareness levels, look out for ‘switched off’ colleagues and react.

How do we manage our awareness levels?

A simple and short answer to this question could be: remind yourself and your colleagues of the importance of being properly aware. This answer, however, is of course far too fluffy and hardly offers any specific guidance. The list below hopefully does:

Constantly be aware of known hazards and risks
Look out for loss of situational awareness – see list above
Look out for changes in the expected working conditions
Frequently look up and orientate yourself about your surroundings
Communicate with your colleagues
Focus on the job and don’t let yourself be distracted
Need help?

Contact us for personal advice

Erik Green
Erik Green
Managing Director and Partner

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