The need for regular training in safety and danger recognition

Maritime Training

Through flying I learned that carelessness and overconfidence in flight are usually more dangerous than deliberately accepted risks.”
[W.Wright, from a letter to his father September, 1900]

You are in a crowd when you hear a specific word the makes you turn around. You decide to buy a new model car and suddenly, the next day, you see it everywhere. You enter a work environment and you become aware of a plethora of dangerous situations in it. The employees however, who have already been working in that environment for years, do not even notice it.

Complacency and the ignorance of danger
Most professionals, who work on safety, know that the arrival of new staff who take their new posts, oftentimes are in a position of “heightened awareness”. Awareness, as much for their personal safety, but also for other dangers in their professional field. Thus, they detect more dangers than their experienced colleagues. This happens due to the fact that the new personnel have not yet become complacent –through experience- from their line of work. In theory this appears logical. Unfortunately, however, this leads to accidents. If a person has not trained his alertness ‘mechanism’, he will fall into a mistake, even if he is on constant alert at the beginning of his shift.

What happens however to ‘seasoned’ staff? How do they adopt complacency towards danger? Through their acquired experience what they discard from alertness is the low chance of danger, which is tied with common sense. So, if the dangers the staff perceive, have a one in a hundred chance of turning into an incident, then it gradually eliminates as a potential factor. As a result, the low chance of danger can easily slip from their attention. Especially when they have adopted the wrong idea that safety is measured by the lack of accidents. So, when a person is exposed to danger on a regular basis that has not led to fatal results, it makes their consciousness believe it to be safe, thus rejecting it as unnecessary information.

Thus, we are led to the conclusion that our perceptive ability can mislead us to dangerous complacency, where we feel safe, but we are misinformed of the potential dangers that surround us. Out initial perceptions for the degree of each danger changes frequently. What we considered a year or two ago as potential danger, might not be believed worthy of noticing in our everyday life. If we have led our mind to perceive some information as superfluous –by means of it not being dangerous- and we tune in on that, we subconsciously become exposed to visible danger. Forced recall to our original perception happens suddenly after a tragic accident or a less serious incident.

In which way do we perceive and distinguish information regarding certain dangers?
Every second in our daily life, we receive countless information. Recent studies from the university of San Diego California, under research Professor Roger Bohn, claim we are bombarded daily with 34GB worth of information. The volume of this information consists of shapes, written articles, video, pictures and sounds. The human brain can clearly process this massive amount of information, however according to Professor Moscoso del Pradon from the University of Provence, the speed of process, for each function at a time, is limited to 60 bits per second. With the purpose of being more efficient during its lifetime, our brain, based on what it deems right, functions in such a way in order to constantly rid superfluous information. In this way, it focuses and concentrates on a limited number of critical information at any given time. Taking it one step further, in a similar way, the brain of a professional who works on safety has been trained to concentrate and recognise danger swiftly.

Which is however the part of our brain that is responsible for filtering the influx of millions of information?
It is a mechanism in the brain called the Reticular Activating System (RAS). To attempt a more analytical approach, this system that regulates the activity of brain waves, consists of the essential element in the metamorphosis of our consciousness.
The word “network” is used because the neurological diffused pattern on its own is like in a network, a diffused area of the brainstem each person possesses. This reticular activating system translates and reacts to information of internal stimuli and convictions as well as external sensory stimuli, regulating thus situations of stimulation, careful concentration and recognition of basic components of our consciousness. The primary function of this mechanism is to constantly check and filter information. When a person feels, smells, sees, hears, etc, all these are transmitted to this mechanism and are stored or better still are ‘filtered’ there. Let us see an example of how this mechanism works exactly.

Let us assume that an acquaintance has just bought a brand ‘x’ white car. When you to see the car, your RAS will immediately store this image as important. Therefore, when you see the same car on the road you will turn your attention to it. Did all these same cars suddenly come to exist on the road? No, there where there in the past too, but they were never stored in your brain as an ‘important image’. RAS immediately after filtering, sends the data to the centre of the brain’s ‘amygdala’. This centre has to do with the emotions we feel. It is the section of the brain –from prehistory- that makes us feel fear. Its purpose is to inform all the organs it related, like the heart, breathing, the sweat glands etc.
Have you ever felt a raised heartbeat, rapid breathing, sweating etc just at the thought of doing something? This is attributed to the “amygdala”, an area of the brain that was characterised as the centre of emotional intelligence and controls, in its own way, not only our thoughts but our motor functions too. In truth, most people have never thought that emotions are also a type of intellect, a way to realise our surroundings and people and our communication with them. Our intellect fights our heart and our emotions our logic. It is this centre that aids us to remain safe from something we deem dangerous. So, we can imagine RAS working as a PC. It creates folders and in them new data is stored. For example, if you throw a rock at a dog and it bites you, the ‘PC’ will ‘create’ a new folder with the word ‘Dog’ and in it will be stored the fear and pain you felt. So, each time you see a dog, the ‘PC’ will search for equivalent emotions in that folder and it will ‘simulate’ what you felt.

So, these neuron brain cells of ‘awareness’ regulate what stimulations will be received by the brain from the environment, pass through to the brain, reach the brain’s layer in order to process them. Its processing power on the brain’s layer is just 60 bits per second! That is why RAS, like an effective filter, only allows entry to stimulants that it deems necessary for our survival. This of course raises the question of how it recognises what data is useful and what is not. One the one hand it recognises the data based on everything it recorded from the moment we are born, which we either like, or we must like in order to survive! Everything others have told us we must like, have been stored subconsciously in our memory’s cells. Besides, during childhood this is exactly what happens from the family and later in society. A type of ‘brain wash’ in order to teach us to live with the given social stereotypes that relate to our safety.
Secondly, our brain focuses and gives priority to information we have chosen to focus on. Therefore, if for example we are constantly thinking what we are not capable of achieving, our brain will choose to subconsciously focus on information that is relevant to that incapability. So of course, by doing this we are charging our already negatively burdened mood, resulting in constantly worsening any given capability! One can therefore understand that when we become adults, or we constantly focus on particular perceptions, due to the workings of RAS, it is hard to alter particular attitudes, since this mechanism doesn’t allow new ideas to enter our brain.

Do we realise that of which we have been taught to want?
When someone walks in a room, the first thing he will notice is what his brain has trained him to search subconsciously. Without realising, he is experiencing what he is about to live. We have, unaware to us, trained our brain’s filter. The good news, if we chose, is that we can regulate the filter again, as it can, by nature, be re-calibrated.
Karl Albrecht in his book “Brain Power: Learn to improve your thinking skills” writes: “The fact that RAS can be regulated has been proven. A mother will wake at the sound of her baby, while the father sleeps. On the other hand, a father in the countryside will wake at the far sound of a dog barking but visiting a town he soon learns to ignore the barks of dogs when he sleeps.” Similarly, how intently do you think of safety measures today compared to the beginning of your professional life? We would certainly state that we see things differently now. With the passing of time, we have, unwillingly trained the activation that we have. This re-training of our mechanism to its original configuration is possible to be done on purpose, by following three main stages.

Step 1 of re-training: Emphasis on specific dangers
Taking into consideration as a challenge to help someone ‘re-calibrate’ his own mechanism activation to danger, we must keep the following in mind: success is based on focusing on just a few elements at any given time.
According to Dr. John J. Medina “The human brain can only withhold about seven pieces of information for less than 30secs; this means that your brain can only handle a 7digit phone number. If you were to extend those 30secs to a few minutes or even an hour or two, you must give your brain a new a repeat of the information or create a ‘historic’ chain that will link the elements to one and only story. Memories are so unstable thus one has to repeat them in order to remember them.”
At this point it is the responsibility of the professionals who work on safety inside an organisation to choose, rather than focus on one set of dangers (e.g. night flights, weather conditions, night sailing etc.) to prefer to chose only certain elements from each category. If the category is not clear, it is preferable to examine the possibility of creating a list with main dangers, which can then be separated into primary and secondary. This step can secure that re-training the mechanism of RAS can focus on elementary actions of prevention and deflection rather than on random opinions.

2nd step of re-training: Focusing on the various possibilities of training for each group.

There are training prototypes that work better than others. Re-arranging the activation mechanism for danger must consider these different prototypes. There are many popular methods that can define the most effective teaching style for a particular situation. The most usual method is VARK that was developed by Neil D. Fleming. VARK matches our method of preference to train a team compared in the way it preserves and stores each piece of information. In today’s reality of visual dominance, it is best to create informative presentations on safety incorporating video, but also an interactive style of communication with the audience during the presentation of the subject.

3rd step to re-training: Merging the culture of safety individual systems in order to secure sustainability.
Assigning defined targets can in the beginning produce positive results, but accordingly failure usually appears in maintaining those targets. Training is an effective tool, but it must be accommodated with constant support later on. “Old school” training highlights the problem of most training methods: longevity. Two of the most effective methods that relate to longevity in safety in an organisation are habits and culture in safety. The following maxim is characteristic: “The culture in safety must be connected with the purpose of why we do what we do”. As far as the training sector is concerned this can be imposed. However, if it cannot be enhanced in a positive way from leading organisational sectors, and between the cooperating teams in such an organisation, no positive results will be produced.
This is the reason why a safety manger must examine the existence, but also to proceed to evaluate not only the official but also the unofficial channels of communication on hand (meetings on safety, presentations, board meetings, face to face discussions and observations, evaluation of spaces/inspections etc). There is a generally accepted theory towards learning that claims that a person to withhold a certain amount of information he must hear it at least seven times. In a similar way, defining and utilising the various usual means of communication in an organisation we can focus on ‘vigilance’ on that Reticular Activating System (RAS) through applying standard procedures known as SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures).
Lastly, it is important we understand what are the formal but also the informal procedures (statistical measurements, incentive, reward and recognition etc.) that could add to the training, as the opposite would create further arguments. This because it will not have a chance of success if all the subsequent organisational systems the changes are directed to act collectively against it, as it happens in every initiative that requires to systemic change.
Training on danger follows us everywhere.
The effort of re-regulating our activation mechanism that we possess, certainly affects our personal life too. When people are able to identify and manage risk in the right way, this unexpectedly affects their actions in their private life as well as their ability to provide guidance to their family members. Being aided to function with safety separately from their working environment is a useful additional target. Besides, off duty accidents are now taken under serious consideration in meetings for safety inside organisations. In this way, therefore, in a long-term standard the organisation or the company comes closer to what is recognised as Safety Culture Excellence!

Trachalakis Manousos
Manousos Trachalakis

Manousos Trachalakis is a flight examiner and a certified Air Safety Investigator. He is a graduate of USN Aviation Safety Officer School and R.Navy Flight Safety Course with master’s degree studies in Safety and Accident Investigation (UK). He is a published author on “Human Performance and Crew Resource Management” and regularly writes for aviation magazines in paper and digital form. He is a full member of the ISASI (International Society of Aviation Safety Investigators) and IFSF (International Flight Safety Foundation).