Be Present. Be Focused. Be Safe: Shining a Light On Distractions and Tools to Overcome Them

May 3 marks the start of Construction Safety Week, an annual event that celebrates the industry’s commitment to safety not just at the workplace but in everything we do.

At first glance, this year’s theme – “Be Present. Be Focused. Be Safe.” – appears to be a reinforcement of the oft-used “be aware” and “be alert” safety messages. However, Robins & Morton’s Vice President of Safety Operations Jeff Palombo and Director of Safety Development Corey Kennedy recognize its deeper significance.

“When we think about this theme through a Human Performance operating system safety approach, ‘Be Present. Be Focused. Be Safe.’ takes on added relevance,” Palombo said.

Current events, the endless flow of always-on news, COVID-19, and the devices that keep us continuously logged on and plugged in compete nonstop for our attention. Being present and focused is not as simple as saying “be alert.” It requires an understanding of human behavior, and how external factors – environmental distractions, competing priorities and our state of mind – affect those behaviors.

That’s where a Human Performance operating system comes into play, said Palombo.

“Human Performance recognizes that people make mistakes,” Palombo said. “The way to achieve a higher level of safety is to realize this and address the factors that lead to those mistakes.”

Mistakes, by definition, are unintentional and are quite often the result of a lapse of memory or concentration, often arising from the operating system team members are working within.

“That’s when we do things such as omitting a step from a task plan, misreading instructions, taking a wrong step or pushing a wrong button,” said Palombo. “Just as Human Performance teaches us that people are fallible, we also need to recognize that we are vulnerable to distractions.”

Distractions can be anything – external or internal – that keeps us from being fully present and focused. External distractions can include personal actions, such as multi-tasking, or not getting enough sleep. They can also be environmental, such as someone interrupting a team member and pulling their attention away from tasks, being rushed to complete a task, or not having the correct number of people to perform the task. In the workplace, we can promote behaviors that encourage people to be present and manage the environment to reduce distractions.

At home, it can be more challenging when the distractions come from children or other family members, the dog wanting to go outside or a ringing phone or text message chime. However, awareness of how those distractions affect us, and the defenses we implement as a result, help reduce risk.

Internal distractions are the things going on inside our heads, including the concerns we bring to work from our personal lives – from worrying about a family member to thinking about our weekend plans. Our bodies are present, but our minds are somewhere else.

Distractions are a fact of life. We can’t mandate them away with a policy or procedure, nor can we simply block them out. We’re not radios that can be tuned to one station. We’re constantly picking up the static and crosstalk of our surroundings. There’s also the programming running in our heads, including our personal responsibilities, concerns, relationships and emotions.

“Be Present. Be Focused. Be Safe.” presents a three-stop process to help manage distractions. First, we need to bring ourselves into the here-and-now. Once we’re present in body and mind, we can focus on the task, whether we’re operating a crane or driving a car. With focus, we can concentrate on executing the task safely.
According to Palombo and Kennedy, some simple Human Performance tools can work equally well at home and on the job.

“S.T.A.R.” stands for Stop, Think, Act and Review. It begins when we stop prior to beginning a task so that we can think about what we are about to do. It’s at that stage when we can become present and focused before we act. Review is an opportunity to make sure that the work was completed safely, and that we haven’t left behind hazards for others. For example, at home, stop and think can help us make sure that we’re being safe in the kitchen. Review makes sure we’ve turned off the stove.

Drift is another Human Performance concept that is applicable on and off the job. Drift is the tendency of an organization to slip away from safe behaviors and to accept those deviations because they have not yet resulted in a negative consequence.

“We assume it’s safe until it’s not,” said Palombo.

Drift also happens at the personal level. We know multitasking with a smartphone is dangerous – and, if driving, likely illegal. But people make exceptions – perhaps to send a quick note to someone that we’re running late, to check just one message or maybe put in an address for directions. Nothing bad happens, so the next time we’re less inhibited to do something that we know isn’t safe. Eventually the behavior becomes normal – until a close-call, or worse, an accident.

“By taking a moment to recognize drift in our actions, we can be present, aware and safe,” said Palombo.
A final helpful tool is Peer Check.

“Peer Check encourages team members to look out for each other,” said Kennedy. “For example, you can help a team member confirm that they are properly wearing fall protection. It’s also a way for team members to coach each other without negative consequences.”

The idea of looking out for each other brings up another important aspect of this year’s Construction Safety Week: the idea that safety is both physical and mental, and that we need to take a holistic approach. In other words, being aware and present also means being there for others.

“In the work environment, we know that if something is heavy, we do a team lift. If we see that someone needs help with a task, we lend a hand. In a potentially dangerous situation, we know to intervene,” said Palombo. “This year, Construction Safety week asks us to look beyond the physical. If a coworker is distracted, how can we step in to help them focus? If we sense that someone around us is having difficulty focusing, if they seem under stress, worried, or not themselves, what can we do? Because being present and focused, like everything else in safety, is both an individual and team effort.”