I drafted this article on attention and safety while flying to Erie, Pa., to present an ASSE workshop. Little did I know it would underscore many of the points I wanted to make. After landing, I took a cab to my hotel. Along the way I called in for messages, but was interrupted when the cabbie started asking me about the Virginia Tech football team.

I put down my cell phone and talked Hokies football until reaching the hotel. In my room, I reached in my backpack for my cell phone to get back to those messages. Guess what? It wasn’t there. I called the cab driver, and sure enough, the phone was in the backseat.

The following night I returned home and got to my car at the Roanoke, Va., airport about 11:30 p.m., only to find a dead battery. The headlight switch had been “accidentally” turned on. I eventually located a battery charger, but without a flashlight I couldn’t find the positive and negative labels on the battery poles. What I thought was the black cover to the negative pole was not. Guess what? I fried my battery, blew a main fuse. At two a.m., I was being towed 40 miles to Blacksburg, Va.

Daily diversions

Yes, these glitches illustrate the critical role of attention in accomplishing everyday routines — and how easily our attention can be diverted and lead to at-risk behavior and negative consequences. Plus, it’s not enough simply knowing how important attention is to safely accomplishing activities.

Awareness of “inattentional blindness” — a term coined by psychologists who have studied people’s inability to detect unexpected objects in their field of vision when their attention is focused elsewhere — is just the start. What can we do about this potential cause of an injury?

Obviously, changing our attentional focus can remove the “blinders.” But this is easier said than done. When we’re busy, it’s annoying to divert attention elsewhere. But this is a recommended intervention. When focusing on details, step back intermittently and take a wider view of the situation. Scan for possible risks and safety-related consequences. Competent workers know where to focus their attention and what to tune out. They also know when to take a wide-angle view of their environment. We call this “scanning.”

Plan to scan

Some tasks require more scanning than focusing. Take driving, for example. Sustained focus on one aspect of driving is quite risky, say when you’re punching in numbers on your cell phone. Competent drivers shift their attention: from the road and oncoming traffic to vehicles beside and behind them; and they occasionally check the speedometer. They continually scan the visual fields observed through their windshield, side windows, and rear-view mirror.

Lack of periodic scanning or excessive focusing contributes to a number of workplace injuries. Many slips, trips, and falls are caused by narrowly focused attention without sufficient environmental scanning. Many harmful contacts between body parts and machinery occur because of insufficient environmental scanning for moving objects. Some injuries occur because people lose track of where their arms or legs are in relation to an environmental hazard. We’re busy, we’re rushed, we’ve got things to do after work, and then our foot gets run over by the wheel of a forklift.

It’s often critical to vary attention from scanning to focusing. Developing a critical behavior checklist (CBC), as I discussed in my April and May 2003 ISHN columns, should include discussing when and how often to scan versus focus visual attention while performing a particular task. A CBC is a good coaching tool to increase the kinds of ongoing attention strategies we need in the workplace.