Situational Awareness: The Often-Ignored Hazard Control


Within the scope and context of high-reliability safety cultures, hazard control extends into a third dimension of situational awareness beyond conditions and behaviors. While safe conditions are both required by regulatory compliance measures (OSHA, n.d.) as well as promulgated by national consensus standards and provide basic hazard control mechanisms for stagnant hazards such as machinery points of operation, they only provide the pretense for safe behaviors. Safe behaviors, an extension of safe conditions, require safe conditions and their associated hazard controls to set the foundation for a safe environment while appropriate operating procedures are followed. For example, while a machine guard provides the baseline safe condition for use of a piece of machinery, safe behaviors require employees to both use the machine guard (safe condition) and follow the machinery’s standard operating procedure (SOP), lock-out-tag-out (LOTO) procedure and more to maximize those safe conditions through safe behaviors. Between these two realms of safety, organizations will have set the precedent for safe operations as well as the expectations for safety within their organization. In short, organizations that have analyzed hazards to put appropriate hazard controls in place for safe conditions and expectations and procedures for safe behaviors will have done due diligence in setting employees up for success regarding safety. Continual efforts in information programs and communication, leading indicators for oversight of conditions and behaviors through inspections and observations, incentive programs and follow-up to incidents through investigations and analyses can then allow for a more maximized effort. However, the dichotomy still remains as this paradigm exists for stagnant hazards. For example, a piece of machinery is operating the same way each day; as long as the guard remains in place and the SOP is followed, safe work can be expected. However, within other, more volatile fields such as the military, law enforcement, fire protection and healthcare, the third dimension of situational awareness exists and provides the context by which hazard control must take place. Even with the safest possible conditions and the safest behavioral expectations, none of this matters if employees cannot assess situations, identify hazards and make safety decisions – in real time. Only with this situational awareness can high-reliability operations take place.

Tracing the Cord Back to the Wall

Figure A – The path from ERM to situational awarerness (strategic to tactical safety)

Organizational safety cultures don’t, contrary to many beliefs about individual employee accountability, begin and end at the tactical level. If unsafe conditions and/or unsafe behaviors exist, this is likely a by-product of the organization’s upper-echelon stance on safety and risk. Within an enterprise risk management (ERM) culture, organizations determine what risks – the potential to lose or gain at any time based on different variables – they’re willing to live with. Some of these risks are avoided altogether while others are transferred via contracts, insurance or other means. Some risks are accepted. The rest of the risks are deemed controllable (Institutes, n.d.). At this point, those risks deemed controllable are assessed via the Hierarchy of Controls where regulatory compliance is required, safe conditions can be made and safe behavioral expectations can be developed (Goetsch, 2011). At this point, organizations will have ideally set the precedents for safe operations through basic foundations for employees to make safe decisions when nobody is around to tell them otherwise. It’s also at this point that the organization can decide whether it will maintain itself with the bare minimum safe culture (‘the government is making me work safely’), whether it will implement and enforce expectations of safe behaviors in addition to maintaining safe conditions (‘the System is making me work safely’) or whether it will actively validate safe behaviors and conditions through increased diligence in safety observations, inspections and more, including functions of Wilson and Higbee’s (2012) dangerous states of mind and critical errors.

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