SA : Scan and Focus : Seeing Bad Things Coming…

Situational Awareness (SA) is one of the oft-cited reasons as to why an accident or incident occurred.  Whether it be a safety observation, near miss or full-blown NTSB or MAIB report, one of the difficulties in being human is maintaining SA.  The UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) suggests in their MGN 520(M) The Deadly Dozen – 12 Significant People Factors in Maritime Safety that a lack of SA can be a precursor to almost a quarter of all incidents.

This isn’t going to be a rehash of all the research into situational awareness.  Suffice to say, there has been a lot – primarily within the past 40-50 years – yet, it is still not addressed at all levels of organizations.  There has been excellent work from US Air Force Colonel John Boyd (aviation), Dr. Mica Endsley (aviation, NASA, academia, medical), Dr. Richard Gasaway (first responders, firefighters, industrial) and many others.  What makes it somewhat difficult to address is that it is somewhat nebulous.

Situational Awareness is different.

~ You can’t hold it in your hand.

~ You can’t see or hear it being performed.

~ It’s not a step-by-step process you can follow or teach.

~ You can’t tell when you have it… or lose it.

– Jake Mazulewicz, Ph.D.

In a recent article on LinkedIn, Dr. Mazulewicz does discuss the research into situational awareness, breaking it down into 3 camps :

1. The Endsley Model (1995) breaks down SA into three levels – namely, perception, comprehension and projection.  Sounds simple enough, right?  There are plenty of ways of honing each of these levels, but it might not be the best model (graphic below) to roll out for frontline workers.

2. The Cooper Color Codes or States of Awareness are oriented largely towards the law enforcement and military communities.  Not that these codes might not have analogies in other areas, but…there might be something better.



3. OODA Loop : Standing for Observe-Orient-Decide-Act, the OODA loop is based on the work of Col. John Boyd (USAF) and developed for military aviators to give them an edge in air-to-air combat.  Again, the OODA loop has applications in other realms, but might there be a way to make situational awareness more tangible to frontline workers?

And that, is where Dr. Mazulewicz comes in with his “Scan and Focus” model of situational awareness.  He observed a classic experiment where participants are instructed to watch a video and count the number of times a ball was passed. The participants consistently failed to notice an anomaly (no spoilers!) within the video as they focused on the task of counting passes.  But what happened when other participants weren’t as focused on counting passes?  The anomaly was sighted almost 100% of the time as they scanned the video.  Unfortunately, the scanning participants did not accurately complete the task of counting ball passes.

But, what happened when the participants worked in pairs?

By working in pairs, with one focusing on the task at hand – counting passes and one scanning the area for anomalies, both tasks were accomplished.  But could this model of situational awareness have applications in the maritime industry?  The answer is an absolute, YES!  Unfortunately, there are many examples of where this model was not used and the outcomes were expensive – both monetarily and in human life.

Two accident reports were published at about the same time Dr. Mazulewicz published the linked article regarding the Scan and Focus model that highlight the potential of this model.  The first regarded a fatality onboard MV Cimbris.  In that case, a stevedore foreman was fatally crushed between a gantry crane and hatch cover.

Contributing to this accident was, “As it was not possible from the gantry crane’s control position to see the hatch cover’s full path of travel, the crane operator should have employed at least one lookout or banksman and put in place suitable means of communication. This requirement was made clear in the vessel’s SMS, which stated that a second person was required to safely operate the gantry crane.




And then there was the case of the MV GH Storm Cat where contact of the vessel’s crane with a shoreside cargo structure resulted in close to $500,000 in damage.

The root cause?  “The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the GH Storm Cat’s crane contact with the Zen-Noh grain facility runway was the absence of a dedicated signalman, which led to the ship’s crane operator’s misjudgment of the location of the crane boom while lowering the payloader to the pier.

In both these accidents, the operator was focusing on the task at hand and there was no one scanning for hazards.  These are excellent examples of where and how the Scan and Focus model can be introduced to frontline workers as a method of improving situational awareness.

While these accidents both involved lifting operations, the Scan and Focus model of situational awareness can be applied in numerous other areas onboard.  During mooring operations, there’s frequently a safety officer present who should be scanning for hazards while others are focusing on the task of mooring or unmooring the vessel.  During docking or undocking evolutions, while the captain and pilot are focused on the motion of the ship in relation to the berth and the actual engine/helm orders, there should be another deck officer scanning the area for potential hazards, whether those be navigation hazards, collision hazards or the changing status of the vessel that might have it’s own hazards (rest hours for crew?).  Even during routine navigation on the bridge or maintenance in the engine room, being aware of this model could help your crew see bad things coming in time to prevent bad outcomes.

There’s much, much more about situational awareness including barriers to it, how to acquire SA (and keep it) and the “bubbles” of SA (are you focused on your personal status, the status within ship or everything within 20 nautical miles?), but the Scan and Focus model is an excellent place to start.

Let’s be safe out there.

Additional Reading and Links

LinkedIn : How Technical Teams Can Improve Situational Awareness with the Scan & Focus Model – Dr.Jake Mazulewicz (2021)

NTSB – GH Storm Cat – Crane Contact with Shoreside Facility – November 2020

MAIB – Cimbris – Crush Injury-Fatality with Ship Crane – July 2020

MCA MGN (520) – HUMAN ELEMENT GUIDANCE – PART 2 The Deadly Dozen – 12 Significant People Factors in Maritime Safety

Maritime Safety Innovation Lab : Situation(al) Awareness



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