Are you “aware” in all, or at least most of the aspects of your LESSON life? Awareness implies that you have knowledge of something by maintaining a level of alertness in observing or in interpreting what you see, hear, feel, etc. Some people are very aware, but most of us limit our awareness to what we concentrate on. We focus so much on a specific “thing” that we don’t realize there is a forest of “things” out there, with many potential outcomes that can impact us for good or bad.

For me, a lack of awareness has happened more than once, and likely for you too. Have you had an experience similar to the following? I go to a jobsite and review a system that is either being constructed, or I am looking for some possible cause for an operational problem. I return to the office, and after analyzing what I saw and, or, heard, I realize I can’t recall some specific aspect of the system or equipment that may be important, even though was I looking right at it. Fortunately for me and possibly you, this type of “lack of awareness” doesn’t occur nearly so often with the use of (as approved) digital photos of my observations. Truly, a picture can be worth a thousand words.

Many times, a lack of awareness happens because we are focused on something specific, which reduces our awareness of other things happening around us that might be important. We don’t see what is there. For example, I recently hiked over several hundred miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in the mountains of Northern California. The scenery was beautiful, however, at least for me, the trails required my near constant focus – so I wouldn’t twist an ankle or catch my foot on a root, a rock, or fall on or off the trail. Although I was hiking alone, I saw other hikers every day. In particular I became acquainted with two young men that were going my same direction and I would bounce ahead and behind them as we hiked through Northern California. One afternoon while we were all together having a break, one of the younger hikers mentioned he had so far seen fourteen bears in the last few hundred miles. What! I hadn’t seen one. I am sure they were there. If I had just looked around and observed, I know I would have seen at least some bears. As it was, I blindly plodded along, focusing mainly on the trail, unaware that many times near me was one of the largest creatures that lived in these mountains, and one that might have been as interested in my food as I was.

Lack of awareness may also be associated with not hearing, or taking appropriate actions based on what we hear. Many years ago I went with my Dad to help with modifications on a large fish processing ship in Alaska. When we first came on board we were given a tour to familiarize us with the ship layout, which included the engine room where the generators were located that provided all of the ship power. I noticed that the main generator made a funny “chirping” sound, which no one seemed to notice or think was important. After settling into our state rooms (loose use of the term), we soon began the modifications to the ammonia refrigeration system. A few days later the lights flickered, and went out all over the ship. Knowing of my dad’s skills and reputation, the Captain ask him to respond with the ship’s maintenance crew to the main engine room. The main generator had released the “chirp”, and blew out a large chunk of the generator wall, throwing hot oil onto the adjacent wall, where unfortunately, was located some of the main electrical circuits and switch gear.

During the next several hours the ships maintenance and operations people worked along with my dad to bypass the burned out electrical gear and circuits and finally succeeded in getting another generator online and connected to the proper circuits. The generator failure was bad enough, but just before this event happened, a large load of shrimp had been delivered to the ship to be processed in the immersion freezer. With all electrical power off-line, there was no way to freeze the shrimp so they sat on the deck. After 24 hours, the shrimp were well past the point of being usable. The smell was unforgettable, and I didn’t have much of a taste for shrimp for some years after that.

Here is another example of awareness, this time considering feelings. In some situations you may have just a feeling, hunch, whatever you want to call it, that something is just not right.

Many years ago a very good friend of mine, Patrick Johnson, responded to an ammonia leak at a facility in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he served as a Fireman. During this incident, more than once, Patrick had the feeling that something just wasn’t right. They had followed proper procedures in responding by briefly referring to the information sources they had about ammonia, which at that time didn’t alert them to some critical information. They did not know that under certain conditions and at high concentrations, ammonia vapor could ignite.

The first entry into the facility, and the room where the ammonia leak was located, was made by two of the facility personnel along with two fire fighters. All of them had on SCBA’s, but the facility personnel did not have on totally encapsulating suits. Due to the high PPM of ammonia in the room, the facility maintenance men soon began feeling a burning sensation under their clothes and couldn’t stay in the room. Patrick’s partner Percy noticed that the facility men were gone, and they decided to also leave. Once outside, they saw the facility men being washed down to stop the burning sensation of the ammonia on their skin. After further discussion with the maintenance men, it was decided to try one more time. After seeing what had happened to the maintenance men, and recalling the condition in the room where the leak was located, Patrick had an uneasy feeling about the situation. Percy felt it was worth trying again, so together they decided to make a second entry.

Unfortunately, not long after entering the room the second time, a spark was created when the forklift being used changed directions, and the ammonia in the room ignited. Both Patrick and Percy were wearing butyl rubber totally encapsulated suits, which mostly melted. Patrick was severely burned and has had to live with the results of those burns all his life. Patrick became a strong advocate for the use of ammonia, and the safe and proper response to ammonia incidents. Over the many years I’ve known Patrick, he often wondered how would things have turned out had he just followed his “gut feeling?”

At the IIAR Annual meeting in 2016, the keynote speaker was Dr. Joe MacInnis. He gave an informative, fascinating, and extremely interesting talk. In the book Dr. MacInnis wrote titled “Deep Leadership Essential Insights From High-Risk Environments,” in the chapter “Fierce Ingenuity,” he makes a statement that relates to our awareness. He says, “To prepare for the hard moments, you master all the details. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of them and they contain the truth about your state of readiness. Ignore them and you expose yourself to hasty and superficial decisions.”

Awareness can be, and many times is, critical to our proper response to the world around us. Being aware is not a onetime thing, where you are aware and always will be aware. To be aware we must consciously think about the details – such things as: what am I doing, where am I, what is around me, who else is around me, what are the potential results from my actions, what do I hear, see, feel, etc. In our field of industrial refrigeration (as well as other aspects of life) work on improving your awareness and thus improve your state of readiness to make the best decisions. Taking the appropriate actions at the time they are needed is always worthwhile.