Influence of Distraction, Workload and Other Factors

The final element of core enabling knowledge relates to the range of factors that can negatively impact on situation awareness. Factors such as distraction, high workload, monotony and boredom, multiple competing tasks, highly salient features of the environment, and conflicting information are all aspects that can lead to degraded situation awareness. Further, the ‘startle effect’ has recently been the focus of research in the aviation domain, as it has been implicated in the fear- and stress-related degradation of situation awareness in a number of recent catastrophic accidents.8 The use of specific case studies to introduce these concepts is often highly effective and engaging.

It is useful to distinguish between internal and external sources of distraction and misplaced attention. This is articulated elegantly in a study of risk factors associated with a signal passed at danger (SPAD) event, whereby train drivers are at risk both from environmental distractions (such as an event on the platform) and from internal distractions (such as pressure and anxiety associated with on-time running).19

Finally, extended time on task is another factor that has been demonstrated to be associated with degraded situation awareness, and the ability for operators to take short breaks is critical to enable a brief period of reduced concentration prior to re-establishing their level of attention and task focus.20

Situation Awareness Recovery

One novel concept relates to the specific skills required for recovery from degraded situation awareness caused by the factors described in the previous section. Recent research has highlighted that after an interruption or distraction, recovery of situation awareness is achieved by increasing scanning. Operators who are successful in situation awareness recovery also specifically guide this increased scanning towards cues that were being attended to prior to the distraction.21

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