25 Jan Driven to distraction
Lizz’s recent post about our own safe and unsafe behaviour here at JOMC prompted me to put pen to paper and consider the nature of distraction. The job we do inevitably involves a lot of travel, so distractions while driving is the main point of debate but the same principles apply to any task.
Distracted is a much abused immediate cause for unsafe behaviour. The danger is that ‘I was distracted’ becomes the default position when the actual reason for the unsafe behaviour is ‘I can’t see the risk so I don’t wear my eye protection’ or ‘In fact I habitually don’t wear my eye protection’. But of course we must not lose sight of the fact that people sometimes genuinely do forget to adopt the safe behaviour and need a friendly reminder.
One outcome of this effect is that the list of immediate cause options in the JOMC Engage database has to be expanded to accommodate the question ‘distracted by what?’ in an attempt to get at the real cause.
What causes distraction?
Plainly there are the immediate distractions, the things that you know you shouldn’t be doing. Behind the wheel this includes twiddling with the CD player, reading a map or eating a Yorkie for instance. But putting these more immediate physical distractions aside, the more interesting ones are those that occupy the mind and interfere with focus on the task in hand. The list of causes fitting this category is almost endless and can take us into some fairly personal areas.
An individual who worked for me two decades ago had shown a marked deterioration in his attendance and also in his safety performance. The reason? He was being chased by the Child Support Agency for money and he’d completely lost his focus on work in general and specifically the tasks that he was engaged with.
We’re all aware of the big three distractions: bereavement, divorce and the house-move but how do you accommodate these in your safety management system? You could have a tick box on the permit to work and ask the person if they’re experiencing any of these things before they start a task. I don’t think so.
How to uncover causes of distraction
There are two more realistic ways in which these major distractions might be revealed. If the culture allows it, the affected individual may approach his line manager and explain his situation which would allow action to accommodate the problem. It’s also not incredible that a process of 1:1 workplace discussion might reveal that someone is struggling with a major issue.
It’s not our place to pry into people’s private lives but a conversation delivered in the right tone might just reveal the real cause of unsafe behaviour rather than ‘I was distracted’. If the real cause is a personal issue this requires extremely sensitive handling and involves the SUSA coach persuading the individual to seek support or raise the issue with their management but in either case the coach should offer to assist.
- If you ask someone why they’ve chosen an unsafe course of action and they respond with either “I was distracted” or “I forgot” you simply have to establish why this might have happened
- Some sources of distraction are straightforward while others may be extremely personal. Often the latter won’t be revealed but if they are, then very sensitive handling is called for