People rarely get hurt because they want to, because they don’t care, or are clumsy. All too often, the inability to control attention and attitude can be an insidious contributing factor in many injuries.

Let’s uncover some of the effects of poor attention control, examine contributing factors, and review strategies for helping workers control their own attention and attitude.

Paying the price

Loss of attention control can be a significant contributing factor in common injuries. When people are on the move in their job (or at home), blindly operating on “automatic pilot” is only effective when situations are unchanging. The continuing process of perceiving and making needed adjustments is critical to injury prevention when there are changing conditions — weather, traffic, and personal risk factors. (Not only do cars run differently on different days, people wake up in different conditions daily, more or less likely to sustain muscular-skeletal disorders from doing similar tasks).

Here are examples of the role attention plays in injuries:

  • Slips, trips and falls are often attributed to slippery or object-strewn work surfaces, but experience shows that loss of attention is often in play. Environmental distractions or mental preoccupations can easily arrest attention.

  • Many injuries where people run into or are impacted by a moving or a stationary object involve lack of attention. Have you ever known someone who was dwelling on a concern or making long-term plans while walking, then slammed into a wall, corner, desk or other object that “just appeared out of nowhere?”

  • Actuarial studies show that men, within six months of divorce, have three times as many car collisions as a control group. My assumption is that mental distractions may have clouded their perception or judgment.

  • Disregarding weaknesses or low-level pains can lead to minor problems becoming major ones. The potential for soft-tissue injury increases when people are unable to monitor their internal cues of tension, balance, or if they are unaware of the direction of forces within their body when lifting, pushing, pulling, using tools and other daily activities.

    For example, if I’m aware that I’m experiencing weakness in one ankle, I can position my other foot forward when pushing. But if I’m distracted or not able to pay effective attention to my foot, I may disregard minor physical signals and place myself at greater risk of injury.

  • Hand injuries are often associated with workers performing highly repetitive, often high-speed tasks; it’s easy for them to be lulled into complacency.

“Pay attention!” doesn’t work

The good news is that many organizations have recognized the importance of helping employees develop focus at work. The bad news is that, perhaps not knowing of other options (or out of habit), many organizations have launched "Pay attention" campaigns, either exhorting workers to think before they act or attempting to “scare” them into safe behavior.

Take the petroleum industry, for example. It has historically experienced a significant level of hand injuries. Frustrated and anxious to reduce these problems, one international oil company created a visually graphic poster, depicting the hand of one of its employees whose four fingers were severed on a drilling platform. To motivate other employees to work safer, this picture showed the injured worker’s severed fingers laid out a few inches from the rest of his hand. While this poster indeed got some immediate attention, it was mostly negative. Employees became angry with management for trying to capitalize on their co-worker’s injury in such a gruesome manner.

These shock tactics rarely create lasting positive change. Some people are immediately turned off by negative images. Others may think, “This has never happened to me,” and dismiss these risks. Motivation through fear soon fades into the background when employees are going through the motions of mentally repetitive jobs.

Even eye-catching signs and written reminders soon fade into the background as workers’ attention scans for something new and interesting. Other safety reminders that are slated for a once a year cycle are too infrequent to make a lasting impression on injury prevention.

Chip Dawson, consultant and former safety manager at Eastman Kodak, says, “I visit many workplaces where the effort is so repetitive and unchallenging that mind-numbing boredom is probably a blessing. Under those circumstances... or the other extreme of constant pressure and demands ... most of our rules and guidelines and work tips designed to tell people to ‘be careful’ in one way or another are likely of little value.”

Spotlight on prevention

So what can be done? Here are 15 strategies that have been proven to help boost attention, change attitudes and lead to considerable improvements in safety performance:

1) Take control of yourself first. It can be seductive to blame workers for the inability to control their attention, but it is critical that everyone — safety professionals and managers as well — exert self-control. You can’t effectively help others learn a skill you have not yourself attained.

2) Assess the specific contributing factors to loss of attention and attitude control within your organization.

3) Improve medical management to identify and provide appropriate help to those with physiological problems. Some workers have medical conditions they may not be aware of — such as depression, diabetes, hypertension, Attention Deficit Disorder and many others — that can reduce attention control.

4) Use principles of positive motivation to elicit learning, acceptance and change.

5) Enlist positive, realistic, involved goal-setting. Goals help focus attention.

6) Implement a system of training that helps people control their attention while doing repetitive work. Even workers who normally feel at the mercy of highly paced processes can learn to better control their attention.

7) Design jobs so they provide a sufficient level of interaction and feedback, have specific goals and established procedures, and provide a sense of challenge.

8) Enlist attitude development techniques such as mental rehearsal.

9) Heighten eye control and coordination. This is a critical element in controlling attention. Internally, the eyes help organize movement

10) Offer methods that apply to home as well as to work. People are creatures of habit; it’s critical to instill positive default behaviors that will transfer between work and home activities.

11) Develop a system for ongoing reinforcement and behavioral improvements in attention control.

12) Develop effective organizational stress management.

13) Make work — and your safety programs — energizing. Solicit concerns, heighten enjoyment and laughter, and involve as many senses as possible.

14) Focus your training on principles, judgment, personal interest and behavior, and personal control rather than memorizing rules and procedures.

15) Help people develop automatic safe responses when there is no time to think. Training can help a person overcome fear-based reactions, supplementing them with safe default behaviors when there is no time for conscious decision-making.

Here’s the bottom line: recognize the power of attention, assess the factors that can block a daily focus on working safely, and apply practical methods to help others realize self-improvements in attitude and attention. An innovative strategy can develop significant, lasting safety and productivity gains in focus and control.