Getting off autopilot and back to the grind

LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE BASE, Ark. -- We're in full holiday aftermath mode now. If you're like the majority of us, your brain is trying to realign and refocus on job-related issues while closing out another holiday season. It's the annual January Challenge and part of the natural cycle this time of year. 

The typical scenario sounds something like this: "It's back to the grind and the operational readiness inspection is on the horizon. My credit card balances are ridiculous; those reports need to be finished by 3 p.m.; it's cold out here today and I've got to get those Christmas lights down!" 

Does this sound familiar? And if so, how much effect do these distracters have on safety awareness? The answer: more than most of us want to admit. It's known as post-holiday stress, and it can lead directly to complacency. 

At some point, each of us is touched by it; we all have the symptoms. It's also known as "autopilot," and it's a dangerous condition - especially on the job. It's always around but tends to be nurtured by the holiday season. 

Here's an example. Have you ever driven home after a hard day's work, pulled into the driveway and realized you don't remember the trip home? Was your brain stuck somewhere between the office "to-do" list and that stack of bills in the mailbox? We witness or read about automobile accidents or pedestrians being hit all the time. A
major cause of these accidents is complacency because the drivers are often on autopilot. 

Now consider your environment at work. You're programmed to do things a certain way. You won't walk into that prop, will you? Why? Because you're well trained, follow the directions and have done it a million times. But autopilot can come into play here as well. It can be attributed to a vast majority of Air Force mishaps. 

The maintainer, the operator, the enlisted Airman or officer supervisor -- nobody is
immune. Somebody failed to recognize when the autopilot switch went hot in a large percentage of these incidents. While on the road, if you drive onto the shoulder or see someone blow through a stop sign, it generally scares you. 

That feeling is usually followed by an immediate spike in situational awareness. This
should be the same reaction at work. Just like in the driving scenario, it's time for you to be alarmed and it's time to raise awareness - safety awareness. 

If it's your own complacency at hand, correct it. Refocus and take care of the distractions. Put things into proper perspective, or talk with someone if it's too big for your capabilities. You won't be able to take care of anything if you're out due to an on-the-job injury. 

What about your coworkers? Are they paying attention? Are they short-cutting the
proper procedures? The post-holiday season is prime mishap season so take preventive steps now. Supervisors need to get out "on the floor" and look and listen. 

Call a time out when appropriate. Lower the workload when possible. Pay attention
to the warning signs and don't ignore them. 

· Are the instructions closed or left back in the technical orders library? 

· Is your coworker taking shortcuts? 

· Is the 7-level finding increased discrepancies before signing off on jobs? 

· Are minor mishaps or close calls occurring? 

As leaders, we must provide the resources and the environment that ensure our supervisors and Airmen have the capabilities to succeed safely. Leaders cannot be content with their role. A supervisor's ability to identify when and where complacency exists is crucial to a safe workplace. 

Brief your Airmen about the dangers of complacency as part of your safety program. Ensure they understand the risks and consequences. There may be a lot on our minds, but be sure to leave the autopilot off! Work hard, but work safe. 

With another holiday season relegated to the photo album, working safely is part of demonstrating that continued importance.