A Guide to Maintaining Situational Awareness
Sometimes accidents happen on the job that is completely out of your control. But most of the time the cause is human error—yours or a coworker’s. And the reason they happen is that somebody lost situational awareness.
“Situational awareness” is a mouthful of a phrase that means knowing what is going on around you. Working outdoors is inherently more hazardous than working inside, which makes situational awareness much more urgent:
- The outdoor environment itself is more hazardous, with terrain and weather to think about. A lack of environmental situational awareness can cause you to trip over a rock, scratch yourself on brambles, or suffer a scorching sunburn.
- Most outdoor job sites have hazards of their own like street traffic, carefully balanced loads, live wires, or the movement of heavy equipment. A lack of job site situational awareness can cause painful cuts and bruises or even a serious injury—to yourself or others.
Maintaining situational awareness outdoors requires constant attention. We humans are bad at doing this for long periods of time, but we can make life easier for ourselves by staying ahead of the problems that cause us to lose situational awareness. Many of the tips we offer here are also useful for staying safe during outdoor recreation.
1. Get enough sleep the night before work so that it’s easier to concentrate.
This is one of the most obvious things you can do to stay safe—yet millions of people report to work tired each day. If you’re healthy, you usually deal with an occasional night of short sleep here and there, but if you routinely miss sleep you will become stupider on the job.
Yes, stupider. There’s no sugarcoating it. Fatigue dulls your wits. Your body becomes less responsive to sensory information. Your judgment becomes impaired. Simple tasks get harder and take more energy—which makes the problem even worse.
Don’t give up your control and put yourself at the mercy of luck. Don’t make yourself stupid. Get enough sleep.
2. Keep an eye on the weather.
The weather affects every aspect of outside work:
- Extreme heat and extreme cold can ruin you for the day (or even seriously hurt you) if you’re not careful.
- Rain, snow, and ice all affect ground conditions for walking and driving. There are also consequences for your tools, construction materials, etc.
- The wind is going to mess with your hearing and your balance, draining your energy faster. High wind can also make big messes and cause serious damage.
- Fog and nighttime darkness can impair visibility and make it harder to spot hazards.
- Even sunny weather can cause dangerous amounts of glare, impairing your visibility, not to mention painful sunburns—which can happen any time of the year, not just in summer.
To deal with all this, look at the weather report before heading in to work. That’ll help you decide what to wear and what kind of equipment you might want to bring along or leave behind. It’ll help you know what extra steps you may need to take to protect your equipment and work materials. In the bigger picture, it can help you to schedule work and prioritize tasks.
Take a look at the weather report a couple of times during the workday, to see what the temperature is and what the hourly forecast says.
If you’re heading into a spell of very bad weather, don’t fight the weather unless you really know what you’re doing. Instead, scale down your workload and postpone hazardous tasks. Make sure to always secure your job site to prepare it for a given weather event.
3. Wear appropriate workwear for the job site.
Jeans are still popular, but did you know that modern workwear has rendered them all but obsolete on the job? There are modern synthetic technical fabrics, like the workwear made by Truewerk and others, that put denim, cotton, and canvas to shame.
This is because workwear plays a decisive role in helping you maintain your energy by keeping you comfortable. A good rule of thumb is that whenever you get uncomfortable you are wasting your energy in some way.
- Good workwear needs to mobilize you by having the stretch and mobility needed to avoid getting in your way as you move around and reach for things.
- Good workwear needs to protect you by having abrasion resistance, UV resistance, and resistance to snagging and picking from hazards like brambles or fencing. It also needs water resistance if it’s going to be used in wet weather.
- Good workwear needs to keep you as dry as possible as you sweat by being breathable.
- Good workwear needs to be as lightweight as possible while providing all of the other benefits.
The most appropriate workwear changes depending on job site conditions and the weather. Make sure you own separate sets of workwear for hot weather, wet weather, cold weather, and mild weather. In cold and/or wet weather, it’s best to use layers to get different benefits: an inner layer for breathability and comfort, a middle layer for extra warmth (if necessary), and an outer layer for protection from rain and wind (if necessary).
4. Eat the right amount of food so that your energy levels are good.
This is another obvious one, like sleeping. Eat a good meal the night before work, and eat a good breakfast the morning of. Eating a filling lunch, too. And if your work is very strenuous, eat snacks throughout the day.
Don’t worry so much about what to eat. There’s no need to bother with any fancy diets unless you’ve been prescribed one by your doctor. Otherwise, eat whatever your body tells you it wants. Well-balanced dishes with plenty of protein, fat, and carbohydrates, are a good bet.
If you feel your blood sugar getting low, fast carbohydrates like apple juice or orange juice or a slice of bread can help you avoid a total crash. Just be sure not to overdo it.
Speaking of sleeping, there’s a good rule of thumb when it comes to working outdoors: If you can’t sleep—or if you didn’t sleep—eat. Eating more food, more frequently throughout the day, will help make up for fatigue from lost sleep.
5. Drink plenty of water all throughout the workday.
Our bodies use water as a medium for most of the chemistry that happens in our cells. Being dehydrated slows down or stops these critical chemical reactions that keep us alive—in other words, being dehydrated causes your body to literally start dying. That’s why it feels so miserable. Dehydration alone can cause you to become dangerously impaired at the work site even when the weather is very nice.
Keep a water bottle or thermos near you at all times, full of water, and drink often. Even if you don’t feel like you need to, take a gulp every half hour (or more) or so to see if you are thirstier than you realized. Together with getting enough food, staying hydrated is one of the most critical steps for staying healthy.
While water is the best liquid for staying hydrated, any fat-free, zero/low-caffeine drink will also work. High-caffeine drinks don’t work because they act as a diuretic (they make you pee), and fatty drinks don’t work because they actually use up water as your body processes the fat.
- Tip: If your pee is clear, you’re drinking enough. If it’s bright yellow, you’re not.
6. Physically tour the job site before working in it—ideally each day, if the site conditions change daily. Inspect critical equipment as well.
You can’t maintain your situational awareness if you don’t have it, to begin with. Know your job site; that’s Rule 1 for workplace safety. Know where the hazards are, know where people will be active, and know where everything important is, like equipment and materials.
Do you know how pilots do a walkaround of their airplane before flying it? This is why they do that—and it really does matter. Sometimes, things are not where they’re supposed to be. If you’re going to be on the receiving end of changed plans, new hazards, or somebody else’s mistake, do it on your terms during an informal inspection rather than on nature’s terms when you’re busy working.
For the same reason, you should inspect any critical equipment that you’ll be using. Make sure it looks, feels, and sounds right. When in doubt, investigate further or choose a different piece of equipment.
7. Pace yourself, and take breaks whenever you notice yourself getting irritable or confused—or ideally shortly before it comes to that point.
The human body isn’t built for strenuous physical activity for hours on end. We have to know our limits, pace ourselves, and take breaks. If you regularly catch yourself getting too tired before work ends, it could well be that you’re not pacing yourself properly or taking enough breaks.
Pacing yourself is easy so long as you remember to do it. Don’t work fast at the start of the day: Work at a sustainable pace. Don’t compete with your coworkers.
Taking breaks is even easier—that’s how breaks work! Even if it’s just to sit down and rest for 90 seconds to catch your breath, doing this can help reset your cardiovascular system and restore energy and awareness. It’s much healthier than working straight through, and will significantly extend your energy.
- Tip: While you’re taking your break, use the downtime to have some water, look at the weather, and (if you have a view) look over the job site.
Longer breaks are also important, during your official break times and at lunch, but also after work and on days off. Consider getting a massage, as massages help with stress both physical and mental.
8. Communicate effectively with your coworkers any time that their work could affect you or vice versa.
We always hear that communication is key, but so many people utterly fail to take this lesson to heart. The difference between a good worker and a bad one often comes down to how well they keep their coworkers in the loop.
On job sites with a toxic vibe, communicating can be very difficult, as it can often be seen as weak or uncool. Obviously, you need to tailor your communication so that you fit in and don’t put other people on the defensive, but, when push comes to shove, if you’re going to do something that could endanger other people or affect their workflow, let them know. And make sure they let you know if they’re going to be doing something that could endanger you or affect your work. It’s equally important to communicate with management for the same reasons.
- Here are some communication tips for construction managers.
This is one of those things that are important enough that it’s worth raising a stink about. Whenever you hear about the really serious workplace accidents—where someone died or something blew up—a breakdown in communication was almost always present.
9. Use the proper equipment and procedures instead of taking risky shortcuts.
Most job sites are carefully controlled and have a proper protocol for everything. The reason those protocols exist is that somewhere, at some point, somebody lost a hand or an eye, or wrecked a million-dollar piece of equipment.
When you move outside controlled conditions, you invite disaster. Whether it’s done out of hubris or laziness, when you cut corners to save time or effort you are placing huge responsibility on yourself.
We’re not going to say “never cut corners.” Sometimes you can do it. But use good judgment. A good rule of thumb is: Don’t compromise the quality of your work and don’t compromise your situational awareness. Don’t create blind spots where trouble can lay in wait to ambush you.
10. Remember that you are never too experienced or too “good” to make mistakes, learn new things, or change your ways.
Our final rule is to always remember the same humbleness and willingness to learn that you had when you were new on the job. Many tradespeople, when they become proficient enough at their work to get used to it, fall into the trap of deciding that they know it all. Not only does this mindset hold them back from becoming true masters of their trade, but it sets the conditions for workplace accidents.
There are always new things to learn. The world is always changing. We change too as we get older. No one is too good to make a mistake.
Be humble. Be curious. Be willing to admit a mistake. Be safe.