Directing Attention to Boost Safety Performance: 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

By Pater, Robert; Bowles, Ron | Occupational Hazards, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Directing Attention to Boost Safety Performance: 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


Pater, Robert, Bowles, Ron, Occupational Hazards


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 nightshift 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 ("The Role of Driver Distraction in Traffic Crashes," 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. …

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