In Brief

  • Diversions of attention tend to decrease productivity, increase errors, and have associated human and monetary costs in the workplace.

  • By thinking of cognitive distractions as task interruptions, OSH professionals can focus on aspects of the environment that can be observed, measured and controlled like other hazards facing workers.

  • Effective solutions to prevent cognitive distraction must follow a task-oriented approach whereby interruptions in the environment are systematically evaluated and mitigated through various means, including education, policies and technology, rather than trying to prevent a cognitive process that occurs in the mind of an individual worker.

Pay attention is a phrase we have all heard at some point. Yet, despite our best intentions, most of us have likely experienced a distraction that caused a mistake or interrupted the task at hand.

Different forces are continually vying for people's attention. Trying to focus on one or even a few relevant fluxes of information can be challenging and lead to errors. To add complexity, basic repetition and monotony can also lead to a loss of focus and resulting errors. Thus, combating the potential catastrophic effects of distractions and interruptions is a challenge in many workplaces.

What is at stake? Cognitive distractions tend to decrease productivity and increase the number of errors workers make (Ratwani, Trafton & Myers, 2006). Interruptions can be particularly detrimental to safety because they stretch operators' attention spans. Many jobs are potentially affected, but the detrimental effects most often occur during time-critical and supervisory-level work activities, such as command-and-control operations, and emergency response (Sasangohar, Scott & Donmez, 2013) in which the limits of human performance may be tested.


Classic research in applied cognitive sciences indicates that attention is a complex cognitive process, not a singular event. Attention is multifaceted since people can direct attention in different ways, often simultaneously (Sanders & McCormick, 1993). In certain situations, one must monitor several information sources and attend to differences using selective attention. Other times, one must focus to block out stimuli including nearby sights and sounds. Monitoring displays for long periods for rare changes in system status relies heavily on sustained attention or vigilance. While performing two or more tasks simultaneously, and attending to both, an individual relies on divided attention.

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