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March 2, 2016 | by Steve Lawrence

From Safe to Disaster in Half a Second

Why situational awareness is critical

Don’t be put off by the terminology. “Situational awareness” may sound like consultant jargon, but it’s the difference between life and injury or death on your factory floor.

“The majority of accidents are caused by human error, not equipment failure,” Shmuel Cohen, director of environmental health and safety at Steel Warehouse, told MSCI Safety and Risk Conference attendees in October. “Of 500 accidents we’ve had at Steel Warehouse, one was caused by equipment failure.” Mistakes, distractions, rushing, skipping crucial steps, violating standard operating procedures—these are why your employees get hurt and worse.

And all of these signal a potentially dangerous loss of situational awareness in the workplace. Cohen showed a dramatic video to illustrate another seemingly abstract but crucial concept: when a distraction quickly turns into a departure. The video showed a young woman driving down a highway, talking to friends in the car, and texting her mother. “The number one distracting device today is the cell phone,” he said. They are particularly dangerous because they so often lead to a departure. “When that woman started texting her mother,” Cohen pointed out, “she stopped operating that vehicle. Her focus changed completely. Our job is to identify and prevent that kind of departure.” The video ends with the young woman crashing head-on into an oncoming car carrying a mother and her children.

“It can take just a half a second from distraction to departure,” Cohen said. “Awareness is a choice, and we have to pay close attention to how we train employees to choose awareness on the floor.”

“It’s often pretty easy to see the distraction that caused the accident afterward,” Cohen said. “The key is to identify those distractions beforehand and attack them.” And the best way to do that? “Safety can’t be led from an office,” he said. “You have to get out there, you have to know the hum and vibe on the floor.”

As we hear repeatedly, this is a team effort. It starts with top leadership, but it must move down through managers and supervisors to workers themselves keeping an eye on each other. “This is a shared responsibility, someone in that young woman’s car could have told her to stop texting,” he said.

“We do not allow cell phones on the floor and we continually talk with our people about making time for safety awareness,” Cohen said. For everyone involved in safety training and awareness, this means knowing the plants in detail, and clearly communicating standard operating procedures (SOPs) and why they are important. “When someone departs from the SOP, they are off-task, inattentive, and doing something that is potentially dangerous,” Cohen said. He urges his safety teams to look for workers who rush, skip steps and take shortcuts, perhaps too focused on quitting time. There should be no confusion or ambiguity about rules and procedures in any part of the workplace. This all needs to be communicated using tools that people understand. Some need face-to-face talk, others respond to videos, clever signage or even social media.

Most everyone is impressed when the company’s top leadership works the floor with a strong safety message. The benefits, of course reach far beyond the workplace. “Workers who are safe in the plant, are safe outside as well,” Cohen said. This drives down health insurance costs for the company and its employees, reduces time lost to injury, and improves morale significantly.

“All of this,” he reminded the audience, “is an important part of business excellence.” 

Save the date for MSCI's 2016 Safety Conference, co-located with the National Safety Council's Annual Congress.