• Insights: What is Situation Awareness?

    Insights: What is Situation Awareness?

    12th April - By Dr R Roberts

In preparation for the Non-Technical Skills in Agriculture event at the University of Aberdeen, we are bringing you unique, industry insights into key aspects of human factors. 

What is Situation Awareness?

“The difference between a good fighter pilot and a dead fighter pilot is situation awareness.”

(US Air Force Tactical Combat Command)

The concept of situation awareness is said to have originated with World War I fighter pilots’ need to develop an awareness of themselves and the enemy within the sky (Gilson, 1995). Situation Awareness (SA) refers to the ability to know what is going on around you and use that information to predict how the situation may develop. Consequently, SA is the foundation of good decision making and a fundamental Non-Technical Skill (NTS; see Blog 1) required for safe and efficient performance. With the introduction of increasingly complex technology, the recognition of SA has spread across high risk industries from aviation (commercial and military), rail, nuclear power and more recently healthcare.

Baptism of Fire

My own introduction to SA was a baptism of fire of other sorts. Two Sunday flights took me to a harboured offshore drilling rig in the Esbjerg Port in Denmark. Safety checks complete I entered the drill floor as green as you could imagine. The driller kindly explained to me that it was his job to drill the wells that would get the hazardous hydrocarbons (oil and gas to you and me) out from under the sea bed using complex bits of kit.

I sat in the cyber chair with screens all around me, looked out the small window out to the huge machines, and realised that this was much more complex, high risk job than I first imagined.

Over the next three years, I worked on my PhD looking at how offshore drillers develop and maintain SA. Monitoring multiple screens, the driller needs to maintain an understanding of both the well bore and activities on the drilling rig, recognising subtle changes in the drilling parameters, and building up a dynamic metal model of the situation. This can then be used to anticipate how the situation may develop, including safety critical events such a loss of well control or personal injury to drill crew. Since my PhD I now view SA – and NTS – as a fundamental part of safe and effective performance at work. The oil and gas industry are beginning to share this opinion with industry led guidance on training and assessing these NTS (e.g. IOGP’s 501 Report).

What can agriculture learn from offshore drillers?

At a first glance, farming and drilling may not appear to share any commonalities. However, they both include long working shifts (e.g. 10-12-hour shifts), monitoring multiple read out screens, and using complex, dangerous pieces of equipment to do, often monotonous, work. Both are interspersed with periods of intense workload in which everyone watches each other’s back.

Given the similarities between drilling and farming, the research that Dr Amy Irwin has conducted and the HSE statistics for agricultural safety, there is a definitive need for further NTS research in farming.

With the upcoming Non-Technical Skills in Farming event at the University of Aberdeen’s IPRC on the 26th of April, I look forward to discussing this further and getting some new and interesting insights from the farming communities.



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