Stay Safe: Maintaining Attention and Focus on the Job

Sept. 20, 2017
In my experience, none of those killed or injured were deliberately engaging in risky behavior.

What do we mean by keeping our head in the game? Certainly, to not get distracted, not even for a second, especially the wrong second. In my experience, none of those killed or injured were deliberately engaging in risky behavior. In most cases they were working safely, known to be careful, identified safety leaders even and completely determined to go home after work. Just a few seconds of inattention can spell the difference between safe and deceased.

I’ve observed that at least four phenomena can take us out of the correct mindset to perform hazardous work safely:

  • Cognitive Bias
  • Unconscious Assumptions
  • Problematic Moods
  • Emotional Distractions

This seems like a funny list to be reading in T&D World, perhaps more appropriate for an Oprah show, but not appropriate for line crews, tree crews, station personnel or engineers. After all, we do tangible work with clear outcomes. This is “touchy feely.”

I predict the day will come when the distinctions between these phenomena will be well known by all of us.  Why?  Because we keep dying and getting injured. We’re certainly doing better, but only to a point.  The easy solutions have all been implemented and now we have to get closer to the edge of our knowledge set and comfort zone.

Alaskan Eskimos or the Inuit are reported to have over 150 words to describe snow, perhaps offering critical distinction when passing along travel instructions.  Similarly, our frame of mind has an important impact on our ability to think carefully and perform safely.  This means that over time we may just have 150 words to describe our composite mood, assumptions, bias and distractions.

We will run through a mental framework checklist:

  • Is this a bias-likely situation? If so, which one?
  • Am I holding a deep, uncritical assumption about the way I’m interpreting this situation?
  • Am I in a problematic bad mood, or worse, a darn near-giddy good mood?
  • Am I thinking about something or someone that has me upset?

This idea of a “mental framework review” receives attention at the Googleplex, the Red Bull Training Center, with Nike’s Innovation Team, the UN Headquarters and at Seal Team Six.  We should not be far behind.

A look at cognitive biases may illustrate the point, and the potential.  Biases help us make quick, efficient judgements and decisions, actually saving time and energy.  However, they also blind us to new information and inhibit a broad range of new options. We tend to draw on a bias when faced with information overload, when there are gaps in meaning and purpose, when we’re in a hurry and lastly, when we’re trying to decide what is worth learning and committing to memory.

It is important to know that we hold biases for things that have occurred in the recent past, for example, taking care to not commit the same mistakes that others have recently made, but not carefully examining new challenges in our current situation. It is not smart to only fight the last war.

We’re also drawn to details that confirm our current belief, such as the time I followed my wife down a one-way street.  I was from the country, she was from the city.  She was used to multiple one-way streets and knew her way around Pasadena intimately.  The problem was that we weren’t actually on a one-way street.  It was one street over.

Despite multiple drivers yelling out the window to both of us in our separate cars, we persisted in telling them they were going the wrong way.  I was further distracted as I watched my wife engage in a furious standoff of blinking high beams with the driver on the other side of the intersection.   Like Harrison Ford landing on the wrong runway, I was transfixed and distracted. The blinking lights looked like a lighthouse signaling a nearing ship about the shoals.   We were so quick to notice their flaws and ignore our own, another bias, that I don’t want to tell you how long it took me to figure out that we were in the wrong.

Gaps in meaning are usually not a problem for most of us.  We have no problem filling in a story with ease, regardless of accuracy.  We also think we know what others are thinking when we really don’t.  I’m reminded of the time I was holding a phone receiver to my ear and directed the operator in front of me to close a circuit breaker.  Unfortunately, the operator on the phone thought that I was talking to him, and promptly closed his circuit breaker.  The operator in front of me and I had been going through the proper communication protocol, but I confused the operator on the phone.  The correction itself looked like an episode of the keystone cops, but thankfully no one was hurt or equipment was damaged.  That lesson was buried deeply in my brain.

Being in a hurry is such a clear bias that it needs almost no explication.  We want and think we need to go fast.  We favor the immediate and the familiar, perhaps using the wrong tool because it is what is available.  We’ll continue to pursue a failing path, simply because we’ve already invested time and energy.  Some colleagues of mine, bright and capable, were hustling to return a piece of equipment to service.  When they closed the breaker, it tripped because they had closed into a set of personal grounds.  Speed blinds even to the point that you will move a set of dangling personal grounds out of the way so that you can close the disconnect handle to return the selected CB to service.

Lastly, we edit and reinforce some memories after the fact.  As a colleague once told me, the older he got, the poles he once climbed got taller.  Usually we have a fond memory about the great work we once did, which we often inaccurately attribute to our own competence in the first place (another bias), but that becomes more uneven over time.

As Buster Benson puts it in the Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet;

  • Information Overload is painful, so we aggressively filter.
  • Lack of meaning is confusing, so we fill in the gaps.
  • Want to act fast, so we jump to conclusions.
  • Remembering takes energy, so we just remember the parts important to us.  

Each of these biases can and do play out to our detriment at times.  Being able to identify, classify and mitigate mental distraction will become a critical skill.  Many have developed a trigger, such as starting a company vehicle or putting on our hard hat, that concludes our mental transition to focus on work.  Think of a surgeon putting on gloves and a mask.  The other three distractions will be discussed in future articles.  I believe this is an area that deserves greater attention and I look forward to any and all reader comments.

In Learning,

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