Distracted driving is a hot topic right now in road safety. But have you ever considered the dangers imposed by distracted workers in an industrial setting? It only takes a second to lose your balance, walk into a high-risk area without realizing it, or to step on a rusty nail. That’s exactly what distractions in the workplace can take away from you – those vital seconds.
In an industrial workplace, distractions can come from many directions. The repetitive nature of certain tasks combined with stringent operational policies and procedures make certain people more inclined to strike up a meaningless conversation with a co-worker or take a minute to check the scores on their smartphone. By nature of the very job itself, people with stronger tendencies toward distractability will be drawn to take attention away from their work.
One famous example of distractability in the workplace was the Metrolink commuter train disaster of 2005 in Los Angeles, CA, where 25 people were killed after the train collided head-on with a Union Pacific Freight Train. As proven by a wrongful death class-action lawsuit against Metrolink (to the tune of $200M), the cause of the crash was a conductor missed a red signal because he was distracted by a text message. The end result was millions in property damage and loss of life.
So What Do You Do About It?
Barring the option of actually making the work more engaging on its own, there are two primary schools of thought on managing for distractability:
- Manage Distractions
In option 1, an employer creates more rules and stronger enforcement in an attempt to make employees fearful of the consequences of breaking the rules. The ones that think they'll get caught will change their behavior, some will make partial attempts to stay focused, and others will put more energy into not getting caught than actually stopping the negative behavior.
In option 2, the employer creates an environment that is more mentally stimulating and supplements that with positive reinforcement. Even something as simple as playing background music gives a naturally distractible worker something to keep their mind occupied with while focusing on the task at hand.
Both options have a place in the industrial workplace. In fact, many companies use a combination of both strategies to keep their employees from being distracted.