“It’s not polite to stare!” is something we were probably told by our parents when we were younger. While this applies in many social situations, realistically if we follow this instruction in every aspect of our lives, it can be a detriment to our safety.
For our ancestors, observing the world around them was crucial for survival. It enabled them to see if there was any danger or threats present in their environment. As humanity evolved and we began to live closer to one another, our observation skills changed. As everything began to move at a faster pace, we began to take less time to observe what was going on in the world around us. Over time, our tendency became to focus on what is immediately in front of us. This “observational laziness” has left us open and exposed to hazards that could present a real danger.
As an example of this lack of observation and focus, here’s an incident that happened to a friend of mine recently. While working in a laydown area, he was checking that the pipes and shafts were sitting correctly on the cribbing and not observing what was going on around him. He was so focused on examining the stacks that he did not realize a forklift had begun working in that area until the operator honked the horn, which startled him. Luckily, the forklift operator, being conscious of his surroundings, had paused to scan the area. Had my friend been observing his environment, he would have noticed the forklift moving into that area. He could have been in real danger if the operator had not noticed he was there.
How many times has a similar incident occurred to you where you lost awareness of your surroundings? I’d wager quite a few times.
Factors that can cause you to stop observing your surroundings while working
Now that we know why observing your surroundings is critical, let’s discuss some of the factors that can cause you to stop observing your surroundings while working. Always remember it is important to take the time necessary to ensure your work area is safe. Rushing to complete a task, or trying to do too many tasks at once, can lead you to not observing your work area periodically. Working while fatigued or tired is another factor that can cause you to stop seeing what is around you. Family and home life issues can also cause you to become distracted and not see everything in your immediate environment.
What can we do to improve our observation skills to help keep us safe?
Improving your visual perception, especially in a busy environment, is just like any other skill — it takes practice. With everything going on in a work environment, it can be difficult to zero in on just one thing. Utilizing situational awareness techniques, you can prepare yourself to actively see.
First, slow down and pause to look at your environment. Really pay attention to the people and activities around you. Block out any distractions and give your full attention to these observations. Don't be distracted by your own thoughts or feelings and do what you can to make sure your focus isn’t interrupted. Try to understand what you are seeing. Use your knowledge and experience in the operation or activity to do this.
Next, stop periodically to check if anything new has developed or begun to take place around you. Don’t allow familiarity or complacency to keep you from seeing any hazards that may be present. Your brain will do the necessary work to understand what you are seeing if you focus and you should immediately “step back” and refocus if your thoughts start to wander.
Observation is no less important now than it was in the past. The only difference now is that we have to do it quicker and more efficiently as there is so much sensory input from different sources coming at us throughout the day. Connecting those dots usually happens based on countless observations that give us the knowledge and experience to understand what we are actually seeing and identify hazards. We can improve this skill, but like all skills, it takes practice and effort. Pausing and looking around is an effective first step.