Cognition, Technology & Work

, Volume 17, Issue 2, pp 179–183 | Cite as

Broken components versus broken systems: why it is systems not people that lose situation awareness

  • Paul M. SalmonEmail author
  • G. H. Walker
  • N. A. Stanton
Original Article


This commentary is a response to Dekker’s insightful article in this issue on situation awareness (SA). This is a concept that continues to excite strong debate but only because of the profound implications for the theoretical foundations and the effects that different approaches have for the work of human factors practitioners. We argue that Dekker’s paper tacitly adopts one approach to SA, and in doing so will inevitably arrive at the point of questioning the concept in its entirety. If SA really is as deterministic and ‘broken component’ orientated as Dekker describes, then we would be in complete agreement, but instead we offer a counterpoint. We apply our distributed situation awareness approach to the key issues raised, answer all of Dekker’s concerns, and offer a useful way forward.


Situation awareness Safety Accident analysis 


  1. Bourbousson J, Poizat G, Saury J, Seve C (2011) Description of dynamic shared knowledge: an exploratory study during a competitive team sports interaction. Ergonomics 54(2):120–138CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. CAA (2011) Safety plan 2011–2013. Civil Aviation Authority, UKGoogle Scholar
  3. Dekker S (2011) Drift into failure: From hunting broken components to understanding complex systems. Ashgate Publishing Company, BurlingtonGoogle Scholar
  4. Dekker SWA (2013) On the epistemology and ethics of communicating a Cartesian consciousness. Saf Sci 56:96–99CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Dekker SWA, Hummerdal DH, Smith K (2010) Situation awareness: some remaining questions. Theor Issues Ergon Sci 11(1–2):131–135CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Dekker SWA (This issue). The danger of losing situation awareness. Cognition, Technology and WorkGoogle Scholar
  7. Endsley M (In Press). Situation awareness: misconceptions and misunderstandings. J Cogn Eng Decis MakGoogle Scholar
  8. European Aviation Safety Authority (2010) Annual Safety Review 2010. EASA, CologneGoogle Scholar
  9. Fioratou E, Flin R, Glavin R, Patey R (2010) Beyond monitoring: distributed situation awareness in anaesthesia. Br J Anaesth 105(1):83–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Flach JM (1995) Situation awareness: proceed with caution. Hum Factors 37(1):149–157CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Golightly D, Wilson JR, Lowe E, Sharples S (2010) The role of situation awareness for understanding signalling and control in rail operations. Theor Issues Ergon Sci 11(1–2):84–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Golightly D, Ryan B, Dadashi N, Pickup L, Wilson JR (2013) Use of scenarios and function analyses to understand the impact of situation awareness on safe and effective work on rail tracks. Saf Sci 56:52–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Grech M, Horberry T, Smith A (2002) Human error in maritime operations: analyses of accident reports using the Leximancer tool. Hum Fact Ergon Soc Annu Meet USA 46:1718–1722CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Heinrich HW (1931) Industrial accident prevention: A scientific approach. McGraw-Hill, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  15. Hollnagel E (1993) Human reliability analysis: context and control. Academic Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  16. Hutchins E (1995) Cognition in the wild. MIT Press, Cambridge MassachusettsGoogle Scholar
  17. James W (1890) The principles of psychology. H.Holt and Company, New YorkCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Jones DG, Endsley MR (1996) Sources of situation awareness errors in aviation. Aviat Space Environ Med 67(6):507–512Google Scholar
  19. Leveson N (2004) A new accident model for engineering safer systems. Saf Sci 42(4):237–270CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Macquet A, Stanton NA (2014) Do the coach and athlete have the same ‘picture’ of the situation? Distributed situation awareness in an elite sport context. Appl Ergon (in press)Google Scholar
  21. Office of Chief Investigator (2007) Level crossing collision V/Line passenger Train 8408042 and a truck near Kerang, Victoria, 5th June 2007. Rail Safety Investigation 841 Report No. 2007/09Google Scholar
  22. Patrick J, Morgan PL (2010a) Approaches to understanding, analysing and developing situation awareness. Theor Issues Ergon Sci 11(1–2):41–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Patrick J, Morgan PL (2010b) Approaches to understanding, analysing and developing situation awareness. Theor Issues Ergon Sci 11(1):41–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Rafferty LA, Stanton NA, Walker GH (2013) Great Expectations: a thematic analysis of situation awareness in fratricide. Saf Sci 56:63–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Rail Safety & Standards Board (RSSB) (2009) The railway strategic safety plan 2009–2014. Rail Safety and Standards Board, LondonGoogle Scholar
  26. Rasmussen J (1997) Risk management in a dynamic society: a modelling problem. Saf Sci 27(2/3):183–213CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Salmon PM, Stanton NA (2013) Situation awareness and safety: contribution or confusion? Saf Sci 56:1–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Salmon PM, Stanton NA, Walker GH, Baber C, Jenkins DP, McMaster R (2008a) What really is going on? Review of situation awareness models for individuals and teams. Theor Issues Ergon Sci 9(4):297–323CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Salmon PM, Stanton NA, Walker GH, Jenkins DP, Baber C, McMaster R (2008b) Representing situation awareness in collaborative systems: a case study in the energy distribution domain. Ergonomics 51(3):367–384CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Salmon PM, Stanton NA, Walker GH, Jenkins DP (2009) Distributed situation awareness: advances in theory, measurement and application to teamwork. Ashgate, AldershotGoogle Scholar
  31. Salmon PM, Read G, Stanton NA, Lenné MG (2013) The crash at Kerang: investigating systemic and psychological factors leading to unintentional non-compliance at rail level crossings. Accid Anal Prev 50:1278–1288CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Sparrow B, Liu J, Wegner DM (2011) Google effects on memory: cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science 333(6043):776–778CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Stanton NA, Stewart R, Harris D, Houghton RJ, Baber C, McMaster R, Salmon PM, Hoyle G, Walker GH, Young MS, Linsell M, Dymott R, Green D (2006) Distributed situation awareness in dynamic systems: theoretical development and application of an ergonomics methodology. Ergonomics 49:1288–1311CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Stanton N, Salmon PM, Walker GH, Jenkins DP (2009) Genotype and phenotype schema and their role in distributed situation awareness in collaborative systems. Theor Issues Ergon Sci 10(1):43–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Trist E, Bamforth K (1951) Some social and psychological consequences of the longwall method of coal getting. Hum Relat 4:3–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Walker GH, Stanton NA, Salmon PM, Jenkins DP (2009) Sociotechnical systems. Ashgate, AldershotGoogle Scholar
  37. Walker GH, Stanton NA, Baber C, Wells L, Jenkins DP, Salmon PM (2010) From ethnography to the EAST method: a tractable approach for representing distributed cognition in air traffic control. Ergonomics 53(2):184–197CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Walker GH, Stanton NA, Chowdhury I (2013) Situational awareness and self explaining roads. Saf Sci 56:18–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Wegner DM (1986) Transactive memory: A contemporary analysis of the group mind. In: Mullen B, Goethals GR (eds) Theories of group behavior. Springer, New York, pp 185–208Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag London 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Paul M. Salmon
    • 1
    Email author
  • G. H. Walker
    • 2
  • N. A. Stanton
    • 3
  1. 1.Faculty of Arts and Business, School of Social SciencesUniversity of the Sunshine Coast Accident Research (USCAR)MaroochydoreAustralia
  2. 2.School of the Built EnvironmentHeriot-Watt UniversityEdinburghUK
  3. 3.Civil, Maritime, Environmental Engineering and Science, Faculty of Engineering and the EnvironmentUniversity of SouthamptonHighfield, SouthamptonUK

Personalised recommendations