Awareness and Attention

Being aware and paying attention to what’s around you, where you are, and what’s happening can be really important. Sometimes for whatever reason, we miss something that we may be looking right at, hearing, smelling, etc. I’m sure that we all have some lack of awareness and/or have not been paying attention at various times. Lack of awareness and attention can be caused by several factors such as exhaustion, sickness, demands on your time, stress, boredom, hunger, etc.

I have experienced a lack of awareness and attention myself on many occasions. These have been learning experiences that helped me be more aware and to pay better attention. The following are three examples:

Besides spending a lot of time involved in the ammonia refrigeration industry I also volunteer a fair amount of time to Search & Rescue (SAR). This last Fall I was involved in a search for a missing person, who had been missing for about three years. As you can imagine we were searching for any “remaining” evidence. This person had left their car on a snowy mountain road during late January and disappeared. During the ensuing years, search attempts had been made to locate the missing person.

The search area was into a timbered area below the road. A previous search of some of that area was difficult, to say the least. A LOT of downed trees made it very difficult to see or find anything as you tried to navigate safely through the area.

A few weeks before our next search a father and son, while hunting, found a backpack sitting on a log. Fortunately, they realized a backpack sitting on a log in the forest, not near any trail was strange. Looking around the area they also noticed some clothing, one of which was a pair of pants laying over a branch like they were put there to dry. They searched through the pack but didn’t find any positive identification. Fortunately, they turned the pack over to the Sheriff’s office. The pack and its contains were preliminarily identified as belonging to the missing person.

With this possible “last known position” a search was planned for that area. A friend of mine and I laid out a grid pattern search for several teams to follow, looking for other evidence of the missing person.

Again, this search was in many places difficult, due to downed trees and bushes. Finding anything would take sharp awareness, so we were all looking closely trying to find anything that could be confirmed as human. It ended up that quite a number of bones were located that were later identified as belonging to wild animals. We searched the area where the clothing had been found for a few hours as carefully as we could in these challenging circumstances without success. Even though all of us were trained SAR personnel something surprising happened that showed us a person may not be as aware as they thought.

One of our lead SAR volunteers, who had been in the search area multiple times, was standing looking around in an area others had been through several times. His gaze drifted down to his feet and the ground he was standing on. Just a few inches from his foot among the short vegetation on the ground was a recognizable human bone. A small piece of the missing person had been found.

Being aware and attentive in the operation and/or maintenance of industrial ammonia refrigeration systems and their component parts is important. With increasing knowledge, experience, and awareness we can better understand the systems we work on and/or properly maintain them. Lack of awareness and not paying attention may result in missing something important, and/or doing something incorrectly, either of which could result in an undesirable situation.

Many years ago, I was working with my dad on a floating seafood processing ship in Alaska. One of my jobs was to make a hand drawing (this was before electronic drafting programs) of the ammonia refrigeration system. The other job was to help with re-piping part of the refrigeration system. Two interesting incidents happened.

First incident: I was a fair gas welder at that time and my dad showed me some of the pipe re-routing that needed to be done. After explaining what he wanted me to do, he left me to do my work while he went to work in another area of the ship. A few hours later he returned to see how I was doing.

“Well son those are pretty good welds, and the routing looks level and straight. However, things will be a whole lot better if we connect that ¾” liquid line to the liquid line over there instead of to the hot gas line you now have it welded to.”

Although I had thought I had been attentive and understood the pipe re-routing explained by my dad, my lack of awareness of what lines were what and what that meant resulted in some of my work having to be corrected to avoid a significant system operational problem (liquid going someplace it wasn’t meant to). I was learning to be more aware when I was told and/or shown something and to pay attention.

The second incident had a huge impact on the whole ship operation. On the first day that we were on the ship, we toured through most of the relevant sections and systems. One of the areas we went through was the engine room. There was no shore power available, so a large generator was continuously running. As we went through the generator room I noticed a sound coming from the generator, kind of a “chirping” noise. I asked my dad about that sound, and he wasn’t sure.

Over the next couple of days, we did our work, and the ship continued processing the large amounts of shrimp that were being delivered. One afternoon suddenly the lights went out and it got eerily quiet. We made our way up to the main deck and we could see a little smoke coming out past the gallery gangway door. I didn’t have a clue what had happened, but my dad had an idea and headed toward the engine room.

What had happened is that the chirping sound the generator had been making was the indication of a problem that the engine room crew had ignored, though some of them may have been aware that sound wasn’t right. No action had been taken to investigate and correct the reason. Unfortunately, whatever happened inside the generator resulted in a large hole in the side of the machine allowing oil to spray out, coat – ing and setting on fire a primary electrical panel on the wall. Most of the ship’s power was routed through that panel.

Fortunately, the CO 2 fire protection system activated quickly putting out the fire. After hours of work, the Chief Engineer along with my dad bypassed the destroyed power panel, and finally got another generator online. This ended up being an expensive problem in itself. An additional cost occurred because just before the power failure, a large amount of shrimp had been transferred to the ship for processing. After several hours sitting in the sun that shrimp had a smell I will not forget.

Awareness and being attentive can improve with experience but even someone with little experience can be aware and attentive enough to realize something might not make sense. With our sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste, and gut feeling potential problems can many times be avoided. Whether we are new to some activity or have a lot of experience, being continually aware and being attentive is a challenge. We should consciously strive to improve and maintain our awareness and ability to be attentive.

Something might be right at your feet that you should be aware of. Being aware and attentive to how piping is supposed to be correctly connected and function. Being aware and attentive to unusual sounds or other tips that may indicate things are going from running smoothly to not running at all. Working on improving your awareness and how attentive you are while increasing your knowledge and experience will be lessons learned of great value not only in refrigeration but in any part of your life.