9 Keys for Directing Attention to Safety

May 1, 2007
The ability to direct attention is a key to successful performance in many endeavors – from sports to leadership to communications to injury prevention. But to avoid defaulting into unworkable solutions, first recognize what has not significantly helped to direct attention control toward safety.

Ignore it and hope it will improve. This is a common organizational approach and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If leaders do not pay attention, other employees will not pay attention either.

Inadequate Reminders. Too many managers assume attention control purely is a motivational issue and periodically remind workers to “pay attention,” “just follow procedures,” “use common sense” or “think before you act.” These messages are too infrequent, repetitive or meaningless, and rarely boost attention control. Often, such messages become part of the workplace background, disregarded as just more “noise.”

Shock tactics. These tactics usually get attention only for a short time, then lead to resistance or disregard. For example, we have seen posters that graphically show gruesome results of injuries – but these images often create a negative emotional response rather than developing positive attention control.

Shame or blame. Approaches that play on fear of reprisals or lowered self-esteem often distract employees from safe procedures. Sometimes, workers wind up spending more attention on covering themselves than on overcoming potential work risks.

Awareness-only training. This approach typically focuses on motivation without developing practical, transferable skills for improving attention control.

The Approach: 9 Strategic Keys

Experience has shown that attention control can be markedly improved if the right keys are used. These keys include:

  1. Help others see that directing attention is critical for improved safety performance. Impress on all the importance – and the potential – of focusing their attention to boost performance in what is important to them.
  2. Recognize limitations of any present approaches to directing attention. Refer to our list above and objectively observe and catalog what your company has done to direct attention to safety and the outcome of those efforts.
  3. Understand there are many components to the process of directing attention. Attention control entails much more than just expecting/requesting people to “pay attention.”
  4. Identifying attitudes about attention control is critical. As Henry Ford wrote, “If you think you can or if you think you can’t, you’re probably right.” If you believe you cannot teach an old dog new tricks, you likely will not put the time and effort into trying. (Dog owners tell me you can indeed teach an old dog something new.) Spread expectations that it is possible to develop attention-control skills.
  5. See aging as a factor, not a barrier, to improved attention control. While brain chemistry in aging can adversely affect attention control, numerous studies have shown that even people in their 80s can improve attention and memory with select mental and physical exercises (and dietary changes).
    For example, a 1998 study by the Salk Institute for Biological Studies found that physical and mental stimulation contributed to the brain ability to create new neural pathways/grow more neurons (neurogenesis) well into adulthood, contradicting previous assumptions.
  6. Assess different kinds of attention patterns. People tend to lock into a preset pattern. Attention has two dimensions – width and direction. So there are four possible attention patterns: narrow-internal, wide-internal, narrow-external and wide-external. Each of these patterns has strengths and limitations. The best attention-control strategy entails being flexible and matching the most appropriate attention pattern to a required task. For example, having a strong narrow-external attention band is useful when concentrating on breaking down a stiff nut in a noisy environment. However, this same pattern does not fit the activity of driving in snow-laden traffic (where a broad-external band is safer).
    You can adjust to what you see, but what you do not see can get you. By understanding your own and others’ default patterns, you can better communicate and train them to expand effective range of attention control.
  7. Recognize that attention control has both individual and organizational components. Actions that are expected, repeated, ignored and rewarded set patterns for individual and organizational attention control. We have seen companies that appear to have their own form of attention deficit disorder (ADD).
  8. Start with yourself. While it is tempting to tell others how to act, attention control begins at home. By practicing attention control, a leader can better help others develop skills – as well as understand what are reasonable versus unrealistic expectations for directing attention.
  9. Focus on learnable skills. Go past assuming that most unsafe actions come from stupidity or a lack of concern. In fact, chronic inattention can be due to ingrained habits, unrealistic expectations or even pre-existing medical conditions. Even workers with ADD can be helped with appropriate skill-training.

Focused Help Is on the Way

How can you practically apply these nine principles for improving attention control to safety? You can do it by strategically boosting attention control for safety by helping others develop three primary skill sets: selecting, sustaining and switching.

Although there are far too many skills to cover in this article – and many have to be shown rather than described – here are a few examples:

Selecting entails being able to choose where you want to place your attention, rather than having it pulled by distractions or other non-critical stimuli. Some of the skills involved in selecting include:

  • Using present and forward thinking through visualization.
  • Planning for process, tool and technique selection.
  • Controlling emotions through postural and other adjustments.
  • Monitoring response effectiveness and making appropriate adjustments.
  • Scanning work areas or traffic flows for changing risks and hazards. (This is personal. Regrettably, a family friend, while touring London, looked to the left prior to crossing a busy street. But traffic in the United Kingdom drives on the opposite side of the road from traffic in North America. Sadly, due to her default attention habit of first scanning to the left and seeing the road clear, our friend stepped off the curb and was struck and killed by a truck.) Daily scanning can help in ordinary situations such as finding an open space in a crowded parking lot.
  • Noting weak or previously injured areas of the body for signs of aggravation. This prevents exacerbating soft-tissue injury.
  • Effectively warming up in preparation for activity and selectively cooling down.
  • Scanning for changes in the environment including visual, auditory, tactile and kinesthetic clues.
  • Developing attention skills for coordinated teamwork.

Sustaining attention means being able to maintain focus not only on areas of potential danger but of opportunity as well. Sustaining skill sets can include:

  • Keeping focused during repetitive or lulling tasks, such as shiftwork on a machine or long-haul driving in adverse weather conditions.
  • Concentrating on the job at hand while working on a high-risk task, like being able to continue to focus while operating a high-speed drill press when a coworker seeks attention.
  • Consciously reducing stimuli for heightened attention control. Psychologist B.F. Skinner, often credited as the father of behavioral science, defined attention as “stimulus control.” People can learn quick methods for reducing stimuli that might otherwise distract from safe performance.
  • Reducing split attention. Studies by noted attention researcher Donald Broadbent have shown that divided attention is the enemy of high performance. But employees can learn to better maintain focus and switch their attention at will.
  • Continuing to focus eyes on the task at hand.
  • Boosting internal balance through propriocentric attention.
  • Operating safely when distracted or fatigued. For example, using best lifting methods, even when tired, rather than save energy by bending from the waist.
  • Breathing or other relaxation methods for remaining calm during potentially excitable situations. We know of a man who was driving when a wasp flew into his car. He panicked, lost his ability to see the road, focused all his attention on the wasp – and crashed the car into a divider. He and his passengers were severely injured. Learn from this.

On an organizational level, strong leaders are able to sustain their attention on desired objectives, despite others’ resistance or competing demands. There is an expression in certain martial arts: “Be rock, not water; be water, not rock.” Meaning, when others around you are panicking, focus on holding firm on what you know is the best course of action (“be rock”). When there are blockages to your objectives, focus on finding a way to flow around them (“be water”).

Clearly, directing attention is critical to creating positive change. Noted leadership expert Warren Bennis wrote, “The management of attention enables others to also get on the bandwagon.”

Switching means being able to consciously direct your attention where you want it to be, as demands change. For example: Repositioning your concentration from the task at hand to respond to an immediate danger, or from a minor risk to a major one.

It is easy to have tunnel vision when highly focused, like determinedly walking through the plant to a meeting and ignoring forklift traffic, sirens, etc. Been there, seen this.

A major airplane crash occurred when the pilot and co-pilot focused on a warning light that did not directly effect their ability to fly the plane. Unfortunately, by the time they switched attention to view their position, it was too late. They already had lost too much altitude to regain control of the jet.

Switching attention requires quickly noting, making judgments, deciding where to look and then immediately shifting focus. Great quarterbacks have this ability to look off primary and secondary receivers and focus on an open tight end, while simultaneously sensing where the pass rush is coming from, taking needed evasive action to not get sacked. Some examples of switching include:

Shifting from overly dwelling on a crisis to focusing on taking positive action. Some people choke under pressure during an emergency or periods of high stress. In other words, they focus so much on the problem they become paralyzed into inaction. Clearly, this can have dire consequences in unsafe conditions. Switching attention entails first seeing, then weighing practical alternative responses, finally choosing the best option.

In a fatal fire in a Rhode Island nightclub, it was discovered that a disproportionate share of bodies were jammed by the entrance to the club – even though there were several other exits available. Is it possible some panicked and sought to exit from where they entered, not seeing other areas of egress?

So, if you were to suddenly smell smoke and realize a fire has broken out that blocks the nearest exit, select the best ways to quickly escape. Help others direct their attention this way as well, rather than panicking.

Focusing on “positive space” rather than getting attentionally locked into a potential danger. In his book “Attention,” written in 1908, W.B. Pillsbury wrote, “There is no act of attention that is unaccompanied by some motor process.”

Martial arts students learn that when an attacker confronts them with a knife, it is natural to overfocus on the weapon.

If attention is not controlled, it is easy to not see other weapons (a kick or punch) or to grab for the knife and get cut. Instead, mental and physical skills training helps them switch attention to the attacker’s forearm. By directing attention to control the arm, they successfully can defend against the knife.

Turning on both self-observation and self-scanning. Strong attention control can entail being able to switch at will between focusing outwardly on the environment to inwardly monitoring internal warning signs such as tension buildup, ability to apply strength and fatigue level.

Attentional switching is a necessary component to the ability to relax and focus under pressure. Seeing overtension is the first step to overcoming it.

Shifting between foreground to background. Attention can be directed to what is occurring up close or further away. Practice can help develop switching between these grounds. For example, when driving in traffic, a skilled attention practitioner can see the cushion of space between her and the cars to the front and side, then shift focus to stoppages or openings in the traffic much further ahead.

Training for Directing Attention

There are many factors in directing attention. The good news is most people can learn to more highly develop these skills relatively quickly. This requires going beyond reading about attention control or exhorting people to pay attention. The best training in directing attention incorporates:

  • Understanding the impact of attention on personal safety, as well as on performing most-desired activities. This must be done with a positive focus, beyond trying to scare employees.
  • Developing the expectation that improvement in attentional skills will occur with right practice.
  • Identifying personal default attention patterns.
  • Creating an individual plan to improve attention flexibility.
  • Switching at will between background and foreground attention.
  • Developing different kinds of attention – especially visual, auditory, tactile and propriocentric.
  • Improving forward-thinking skills. Being interested and able to better project “what if?” scenarios. (“What would I do if I were carrying this box on the stairs and I started to fall?”)
  • Using the eyes more effectively to develop attentional flexibility as well as heightened ability to select and switch focus amd increase peripheral vision.
  • Sustaining attention when fatigued or during repetitive or lulling tasks.
  • Developing an early attentional warning system when working on autopilot.
  • Sensing forces transferring in the body – critical for preventing soft-tissue injuries.
  • Educating people about studies that may support the ability of dietary changes to improve attention control and memory.
  • Heightening focus on body position and alignment for improved balance, important for preventing slips, trips and falls.

When investigating an incident where attention is a contributor, we recommend including a plan for helping the injured (or near-miss) worker develop heightened switching skills.

We all live and work in turbulent times, with pressures and distractions. If you are focused on higher-level safety and organizational performance, it is essential to enhance our own and others’ abilities to more effectively direct attention.

Robert Pater is managing director and Ron Bowles is director of operations of Strategic Safety Associates (http://www.Mastering Safety.com).

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