Directing Attention to Boost Safety Performance

March 12, 2007
Attention is critical to high-level performance in safety and in leadership. This first article in a two-part series examines some of the causes and consequences of diverted attention in the workplace.

Safety professional Greg Hamish starts the day the same as many of us. He gets up, has his eye-opening cup of coffee, showers and eats, then leaves for work. During his drive in, he's thinking ahead: first, to his morning staff meeting with the plant manager, then to the rest of his schedule.

He calls the plant on his cell phone to speak with the night-shift supervisor about an injury that occurred the night before. According to the supervisor, Jack Henry, an instrument mechanic with 20 years' experience, hurt his hand because he "just wasn't paying attention." Seems that while Jack was talking to a co-worker, his wrench slipped, severely lacerating two of his knuckles.

While talking on the phone, Greg gets cut off by another driver – scaring, then angering him. He almost misses his turnoff.

First thing at work, heart still thumping, Greg opens his e-mails and winces. Most of this stuff is going to have to wait until later – his staff meeting is in 15 minutes. Greg frequently jokes he works a 40-hour week ... by Wednesday. His days are overfilled with distractions and interruptions, multiple priorities and tasks that should have been done yesterday. On top of everything else, he now has to shoehorn an incident investigation into his morning's schedule.

Greg leaves the staff meeting early to return a call. Unfortunately, although he turns the stacks of paper on his desk upside down, he can't find the phone number he scribbled on a paper scrap. Greg looks at the clock and rushes to make it to the incident investigation on time.
Jack Henry, the injured mechanic, has just returned from the emergency room where he got four stitches to his knuckles. He's not happy about having to return to work for the investigation. He should be at home, recovering.

Greg visits briefly with Jack while they both wait impatiently for the night-shift supervisor to arrive. Seems his day-shift counterpart wanted an update on some equipment problems that began at night. The night supervisor is rushed, making it clear he wants to get this meeting over with.

Who has the attention©control problem here? Everyone.

Paying Attention to Attention

Attention is critical to high-level performance in safety and leadership (as well as in sports and other activities). Our aim is to provide information and practical strategies for improving skills in directing attention toward heightened judgment and safer behaviors, with an end goal of reducing injuries.

Fruits of the poor-attention tree – There are numerous attention©injury connections. Lack of attention-control can result in:

  • Vehicle injuries – Multitasking while driving is listed as a contributing factor in at least 50 percent of all car accidents, according the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. According to a study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety (æThe Role of Driver Distraction in Traffic Crashes,æ May 2001), distractions are common in everyday driving. Drivers were engaged in some form of potentially distracting activity up to 16.1 percent of the total time their vehicles were moving. For example, 40 percent admitted reading or writing while driving!
    In addition, driving while fatigued – so tired that it becomes difficult to see, think and react – has been estimated to be a factor in up to 25 percent of all vehicle accidents. According to a 1999 study published in Clinician Reviews Journal, sleep deprivation reduces daytime alertness by 33 percent; the study further found that 62 percent of adults are "sleep-deprived" at least twice each week.
  • Struck by/struck against injuries – Not noticing either moving or stationary objects can result in unexpected impacts and injury. This isn't the case only while driving cars or trucks; it also can occur while operating forklifts, performing maintenance tasks, using hand tools and more.
    For example, it's all-too-common for workers to smash a hand against a bracket or handle they didn't see was there, hit their head against an over-hang or slam their shoulder into a cross-under. You've heard of the ironic, but all-too-true, accident investigations where people reported, "The parked car came out and hit me."
  • Strains and sprains – Soft-tissue injuries can result from a worker not using best judgment about what he safely can lift for his specific level of condition (which can change throughout the day). In addition, not sensing tension build-up prevents making the necessary adjustments that can avert potential soft-tissue injuries.
  • Slips, trips and falls – Attention is a major contributor here. Some workers don't see or select the safest and clearest path while crossing an obstacle-strewn floor. Others don't adjust their balance, stride or pace when crossing slippery, changing or uneven terrain.
    Every slight movement of your body has the potential to dramatically shift balance. A human head can weigh approximately the same as a bowling ball. Here, a slight tilt of the "ball" could significantly affect balance. By directing attention to such critical small movements of the body, it is possible to maintain best balance, even when crossing challenging surfaces.
  • Caught in or caught under – Not thinking ahead can lead to situations where workers don't recognize that a machine or object can catch them. For example, we recently were in a sawmill where the operator of a front-end loader brought his machine to the shop, reporting that the loader had a brake problem. The driver was observed rocking the loader forward and backward to enable the mechanic to be able to identify the problem. Meanwhile, this mechanic had lain down with his head in the path of the tire to better see and hear the braking mechanism. Here, overfocusing on a problem to the exclusion of unsafe consequences could easily have been life-threatening. Ironically, the mechanic in question was an experienced and safety-conscious individual, but one who also was fighting time pressures and a heavy workload. A get-it-done-quickly approach sometimes results in not seeing and accommodating potential critical risks.
  • Hand injuries – When working on machines or with tools, workers might move their hands thousands of times a day. The same is true for those opening packages with a cutter, distribution center employees picking and retrieving orders or maintenance professionals servicing machinery. One slip of attention can result in a serious injury such as a fracture, laceration, amputation or dislocation.
  • Accident repeaters – In our interventions in heavy equipment manufacturing, railroad, metal manufacturing and the food industries, we've seen that workers classified as accident repeaters often have poorly developed skills for focusing and controlling their own attention.

The Problem with "Just Pay Attention!"

Arguably, most safety professionals and managers know that inability to control attention contributes to injuries. Therefore, leaders often wind up instructing employees to "pay attention!" Clearly, if these reminders were enough, attention problems would no longer occur.

So what does it take to get – and maintain – an employee's attention to working safely? It's not as simple as repeating a few words or putting up a poster.

Start by understanding your own assumptions. When you ask someone to pay attention to safety, what are you really expecting them to do?

Do you want them to:

  • Accept that the ability to direct attention is a learnable skillset, not just an attribute that people are born with or something they somehow automatically acquire? It's critical that everyone understands that directing attention is a really a set of habits that can be triggered by changes in the person or environment. While everyone has default personal attention control patterns, the ability to control attention can be significantly improved with effective skills training and practice.
  • Have the motivation, interest and understanding to direct their own attention? Often attention-control is a reactive state that most people do not consciously manage. With effective motivation, interest and understanding, almost everyone can learn to select from and apply attention states most appropriate to changing scenarios.
  • Quickly scope out and identify potential risks, such as shelves that are stocked with unbalanced heavy objects, changing traffic patterns in a sort yard, ice forming on a trailer floor or loading dock, worn-down anti-skid matting or slick stair nosing?
  • Direct and sustain their attention, especially in environments that are overstimulated or noisy? This entails having enough energy to overcome the pull of multiple physical distracters.
  • Control emotions that might otherwise become internal distracters? Even when feeling anxious, angry or fearful, most people can learn to overcome these states and still be able to focus on critical signals in their environment.
  • Focus during repetitive or lulling tasks or when bored? We all have seen examples where complacency ("I can do this job in my sleep") has lead to injuries because of momentary lapses of attention. For example, have you ever driven to work and can't remember how you got there?
  • Select and choose the best tools, behaviors, procedures or paths to do a specific task as safely and productively as possible? Many times what people do by habit or what's most convenient is not the best choice for preventing injuries.
  • Be able to first identify attention triggers from a mass of stimuli, and then quickly switch attention where needed? Triggers might include: forklift horns, sparks in a machine, a partially loaded box a worker is carrying suddenly shifting its center of gravity or the glistening surface just one step ahead.
  • Self-monitor a weakened or fatigued part of their body to make adjustments, such as changing position, using mechanical aids, applying different techniques, etc.? For example, when moving product from a pallet to a dolly, do employees automatically reduce the likelihood of exacerbating a preexisting weak spot. In our strain and sprain prevention programs, we've found that the ability to tune in to soft-tissue early-warning messages is critical to prevention of back and other injuries.
  • Use forward thinking, which means being able to visualize and anticipate potential "What if?" scenarios? For example, what might happen if I loosened the bolt by leaning into it and pulled the wrench toward me? Or what could occur if I pushed heavy tongs with my shoulders angled forward and feet in a parallel position? Or what if I leaned into a heavy wind when crossing icy ground?

There is more than meets the eye when it comes to attention-control. Overall, it's critical for workers to develop the interest and skill to monitor the effectiveness of their attention©control response and to make any needed adjustments. Obviously, directing attention is much more than merely pressuring people to be alert or to think before they act.

If Jack the mechanic worked in your company, consider which of these abilities you might want him develop and use.

Why Is Attention-Control a Problem?

Greg, Jack and the supervisor (names changed) are not alone in their struggle to control their attention. The pioneering psychologist William James reported that he only could focus his attention for a maximum of 7 seconds. Some researchers suggest an untrained human brain is unable to easily sustain attention on one object or tasks for long periods.

In addition to our complex internal efforts to focus our attention, there are other external factors involved. Recognize the battle for attention-control that we all fight by living in a distraction©full world that includes:

  • A ferocious pace of change – We continuously are exposed to new information, procedures and equipment that we have to learn well just to stay even.
  • Pressures to multitask – Essentially, we need to become practiced in splitting our attention.
  • Job demands – Jobs that either are too demanding on one end or too lulling on the other.
  • Stress/uncertainty – Fears of job and physical insecurity that erode concentration on tasks at hand. Uncontrolled stress narrows one's attention span, leading to potentially injury-causing tunnel vision. In fact, in the aviation industry, the term "target fixation" indicates tunnel vision in pilots that can potentially lead to plane crashes.
  • Information overload – Geoffrey Colvin was quoted in the October 2001 Fortune magazine, "We live in a society in which attention and funding are the resources everyone competes for." In a similar vein, Joseph Urgo, in his book, "Age of Distraction," wrote, "In the digital age, we don't always choose our distractions – very often, they choose us."
  • Quick fixes – The search for quick and dirty "solutions" to longstanding safety and productivity problems often creates a lot of "new" things to pay attention to, but no new resources or skills.
  • Lack of involvement at work – This can lead to passive responses or inaction that are not the safest course. In environments that encourage a do-as-you're-told mentality, responsibility for one's own reactions, choices and control of attention is diminished.
  • Age – As people age, brain chemistry changes. This can adversely affect memory and the ability to control attention. In an aging workforce, this can be one blockage to safety performance.

The good news is there are safety advantages to an increasingly experienced work force. Joel Haight contends in his article, "Human Error and the Challenges of an Aging Workforce" (Professional Safety, December 2003), "older adults ... exhibit better performance when the situation requires flexibility in response to changing stimuli."

On the other hand, younger employees may be conditioned to lose attention quickly. (Ever watch the rapid pace of changing images on MTV?)

The ability to direct attention is clearly easier said than done. But it is possible to develop skills for enhancing attention behavior in order to heighten safe actions and performance. Join us next issue, where we will explore hidden limitations of common approaches to attention©control and nine strategic keys for helping workers better direct their attention.

Robert Pater is managing director and Ron Bowles is director of operations of Strategic Safety Associates (http://www, whose MoveSMART system for preventing strains/sprains, slips/trips/fall and hand injuries has been implemented in companies in more than 60 countries.

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