A recent news report got me thinking the other day about the importance of keeping attentive for the entire cycle of our workday. The news story involved an equipment operator and foreman from a New York sidewalk construction site facing manslaughter charges after a pedestrian fatality.

We all do a good job of paying attention to the task or critical process at hand, but what about when that process ends? What about when we need to move to a different location on the job or to a different jobsite? All too often, as we complete a task requiring intense focus, like precision operation of heavy equipment, we relax our focus as we move to a new task or site. As an instructor, I see this phenomenon often. A new worker concentrates so hard on running a piece of equipment they lose situational awareness.

You hear the term “situational awareness,” but what does it mean? Think of it as how closely a person’s perception mirrors reality. We can never have full awareness. However, with more experience in each situation, our perception better mirrors reality.

At the Apprentice and Skill Improvement Program facility I work at, we require apprentices to spend 64 hours of their own time working on their skills. Available times for that work include Tuesday through Thursday evenings after regularly scheduled apprenticeship classes. If weather makes outdoors practice impractical, we can have up to 15 pieces of heavy equipment running in our indoor arena. Instructors there to assist the apprentices in improving their skills liken trying to move across the arena to the game Frogger. It can feel as if you’re never 100% sure whether one of the machines won’t back out without the apprentice looking.

Why would this happen? Don’t all apprentices have “Look behind you before you move” drilled into their heads from day one?

Why would this happen? Don’t all apprentices have “Look behind you before you move” drilled into their heads from day one? The answer is simple: Their concentration during operation put them in orange or red focus. When they completed their task and relaxed, they went directly to white focus. (See my 2019, article “Does the Cooper Code Work for Drilling Jobs?” for more on Cooper’s code and focus.) Suffice it to say, they concentrated so hard on the task at hand, their brain fatigued and took a short break as soon as it could. When our brain “takes five” we should acknowledge it and take a moment to do nothing after a concentration-heavy task. That pause could head off property damage or, worse, an injury or fatality.

That pause may have helped in the unfortunate situation with the New York construction crew. A tractor/loader/backhoe operator had just completed a project on a sidewalk and prepared to move to a different location. The operator backed up the TLB to enter the roadway. At the same time, a pedestrian crossed the path of the machine. The pedestrian, looking at their phone, did not notice the movement of the TLB. Unfortunately, the tractor struck and ran over the pedestrian and then continued to the new jobsite. A flagger (the foreman) stationed across the roadway from the incident apparently failed to warn the operator or the pedestrian. The pedestrian suffered fatal injuries and, as I mentioned, the operator and foreman now face manslaughter charges. There is no evidence this was anything other than a momentary lack of situational awareness, but now three families suffer huge consequences.

The next time things get tense on the jobsite —  or you allow the “new guy” to do something a little above the current experience — remember that 30 seconds to a minute of Zen after a stressful task could make the difference between success and disaster.

Until next month, stay calm, stay focused, maintain situational awareness and keep turning to the right.