Learnings from Safety Professionals: Worker Attention to Improve Safety and Operational Outcomes

sleepy factory worker

In January, 2017, our EHSQ Community had a Mastermind sessions with Amanda Wang Valentine, Dr Gary Edwards and Tamara Parris to discuss how attention impacts our workers safety in the workplace.

During our sessions we had two community members volunteer, Jessie Aiton and Thomas Colla of Fomas Group. They shared their views, challenges and insights learned through their work experience on our workplace safety issue.

We had 22 participants joining us this session, during which we learned everyone believes attention does influence safety in the workplace. 64% of our participants said “yes” they do have methods to help strengthen their workers attention, to optimize their teams work performance.

The four top mentions were (1) safety signs, (2) discussing concerns at meetings (3) speaking directly with their workers on the site floor and (4) encouraging workers to take a break.

When ask our sessions three polling questions, our members responded accordingly;

  • 13 members stated they do have processes where workers need to apply significant attention and alertness, or there would be a negative outcome.
  • 12 members found during their Root Cause Analysis employees have mentioned ‘attention’ and ‘alertness’ influenced the event.
  • 11 members shared they do not have programs to address Human Performance errors.

During the session we noticed three reoccurring themes:

  • Concern with workers switching into “Auto-pilot” during a repetitive task
  • Having to keep “safety” in the forefront of everyone’s mind
  • The consequences of an accident can extend beyond the workplace setting, which is often overlooked by non-safety professionals.

Our members also raised their concerns about the increasing distractions their workers are facing in modern workplaces. Several voiced that workers are taking their focus off the heavy equipment they are using, increasing the risk of injury to others during the 10 to 20 seconds they are not focused. During our discussion, we kept returning to the concept of “auto-pilot” syndrome, and how critical it is that workers not lose attentiveness during high risk work tasks. This post will share the learning from our sessions, challenges of regaining workers attention, and ideas from our brainstorming session to regain workers attention. We encourage you to share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.

This issue has been discussed for numerous of years, what we know is lack of focus can have sobering safety consequences: leading to work injuries and even death . During our conversation what we learned is there are workplace activities that can be used to improve focus and positively impact health and safety outcomes.

Our group identified three Insights learned to focus on:

  • In Root Cause analysis; they have observed “being focused on ‘what we do’ ” covers more than 60 – 70% of accidents and near misses.
    • Knowing this our group agreed we should try to increase usage of prompts to tune workers into “what they are doing” when they are engaged in a long period and / or repetitive tasks.
  • Workers have a tendency to overlook the standard safety procedures and training because of the false sense of being safe from historical experience.
    • use more storytelling and motivational tools to reaffirm safety as a team value.
  • Need to create stimulus within environment that would bring individual back into an “attentive” state” while engaged in the work task.
    • EHSQ Professionals would benefit from considering the use programs like Nudge theory to prompt workers focus gently when needed.

During our session the following challenges where identified:

  • As EHS Managers, to get the workforce focused back on the safety processes they need to do the job safely.
  • People start to over look standard safety processes that place them at higher risk due to familiarity.
  • Over time we do not see repetitive tasks as dangerous, as a result people lose their attentiveness to the task placing themselves at higher risk.
  • Once you get employee back to being focused, maintaining focus during the task period is next issue.
  • Getting people genuinely involved in safety and the procedures to mitigate hazards in the workplace.
  • Get management on-board with concept and  understanding the need for culture change to achieve greater operational success; paying attention drives more operational efficacy.

During our break out discussion, we looked at various ideas to increase workers awareness. Our top mentions were:

  • Using “Nudge” theory to grab workers attention when needed
  • Moving signs randomly and frequently to new placement
  • Pacing the learning over a time period, to help with recall
  • Sharing stories to help heighten awareness
  • Connect safety with deeply held values
  • Visual process training with high risk workers

Our major takeaways from our session were; (1) an understanding that (a) losing attentiveness with repetitive task or (b) overlooking standard safety processes during familiar tasks is a natural feature of our brain to save energy so to be attentive in these situations, we have to train out of our default state. (2) Holding sustained focus in tasks that are familiar or repetitive is also the opposite of our natural brain state.  It takes a lot of energy to be focused so when we are doing something familiar, our brain knows this, and switches off high attention.  Through attentiveness strengthening, we can learn to control our attention to change our default state.

Through our group discussion, everyone came to agreement that attention is often over looked as an important piece to cultivating a safe environment. In order to have a safe workplace, all organizational members need to participate in helping each other maintain their focus on the tasks they are engaging in.

Safety starts with “me” and safety is a team to help bring people’s attention back  Jessie Aiton


Amanda Wang Valentine is the founder of eHone; whose mission is to help people be their best at work and home by optimizing our innate attentional abilities.  We take scientific innovations and build user friendly applications that are fun to use and help people be more resilient in these changeable times. Amanda hosted an EHSQ Community webinar Strengthening Worker Attention to Improve Safety and Operational Outcomes Webinar

Dr. Gary Edwards  is a Data Science Advisor to Intelex Technologies. He is currently guiding a Data Science team on a mission to transform Environment, Health & Safety, and Quality (EHSQ) outcomes through predictive analytics focused on a decade’s worth of data gathered from over a 1000 companies worldwide.

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