Safety is much more than just preventing injuries. But even when it comes to accident prevention, 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.

Some leaders recognize this and try to respond. But even well-intentioned efforts that exhort people to "Pay attention!" or to "Change your attitude" often lead to increased frustration and defensiveness - and people still don't know what to do differently.

Tom Peters, author and management consultant, said that in twenty-five years of consulting, everything he's learned could be summed into five words, "Attention is all there is." What you put your attention to is what you get, what you don't is what you don't achieve.

Developing a high level of expertise in any activity or sport is based upon the ability to alertly notice feedback and continually optimize performance. The ability to concentrate and adjust is critical to becoming an expert in any skill - from golf to gardening to gung fu (martial arts).

The purpose of this article is to uncover some of the effects of poor attention control on safety, examine contributing factors that lead to poor attention control and suggest strategies for helping workers control their own attention and attitude for injury prevention and heightened performance.

The Mechanism of Attention

Scientists disagree about the exact physiological mechanism of attentional control. But one thing is clear. Attention is part of all notification and decision-making processes. When well-controlled, it is an instrument for effectiveness, facilitating learning and operation at a high level in potentially adverse conditions. Poorly controlled attention can hamper performing common activities such as walking, climbing, lifting, driving or using tools.

Attention implies the ability to scan and search, to select from information provided by our senses or memory and to recognize changes in at-risk and more-secure operating zones. Often this happens sequentially, where we shift focus from one thing to another. Attention always involves making choices about where to focus and what to take in. This is not always voluntary. Outside stimuli can draw attention -- information that is unusual, intense or potentially threatening. Then the body and mind may be further activated, oriented towards the stimulus.

Attention is a prelude to weighing potential consequences, making effective judgments and behavioral adjustments. What you see is what you get. Where you look with your eyes controls what you see. This, in turn, affects the information your brain receives to take action. Have you ever had the experience of driving and not seeing a car that was right beside you?

An individual can effectively direct his attention to only one message at a time, according to studies done by Donald Broadbent. He also showed that people are continually selecting which messages on which to focus. And that internal motivation helps determine what we select and where we direct our attention. In other words, interest directs attention.

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