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Does Inattention Impact Safety on your farm?

I recently participated in an informative webinar facilitated by Australian Institute of Health and Safety, where the speaker was Cristian Sylvestre, Managing Director of HabitSafe.

The topic was Does Inattention Impact Safety? Below is my take on this webinar. When you’ve got 7 minutes, have a read and see if and how much inattention is impacting safety in your workplace.

What were they thinking?

More likely, according to author and researcher Cristian Sylvestre from HabitSafe, it’s what were they NOT thinking when incidents happen.

It’s a lack of thinking about the risk that causes problems. Call it inattention, human error or whatever you like, why do people make poor in-the-moment decisions?

Often when something goes wrong, such decisions are often described as out of character for the individual involved. We know the risk, we know something may even be illegal (e.g. texting while driving) yet we make a very average decision.

We're all guilty

It pains me to admit this. As a diligent safety professional, the times I’ve driven home from work and realised I had little memory of the drive, scares me! To date I’ve always arrived unscathed, so something must be going right.

Even when we concentrate on the road, we automatically know where the indicator lever is, we don’t have to look to find the accelerator or brake pedals, and we know how much distance we need to stop safely. But we generally don’t consciously think of these things, especially when we’ve got a few years behind the wheel.

Autopilot much?

How often do we actually stop and think about something we do all the time? Do you put your left shoe on first, or the right?

When you get in a car do you start it, or put your seatbelt on first?  

We do things without thinking, subconsciously. Because we’ve done a particular thing so many times, we no longer make active decisions about it as it’s just doing the same thing we’ve always done. We feel safe. We have a low sense of danger.

"Neuroscientists estimates that some 95 per cent of what we do is subconscious. In other words, almost all of our actions, even high-risk tasks performed repeatedly, are done in autopilot to some degree.” Cristian Sylvestre, Third Generation Safety: The Missing Piece

Flicking in to autopilot for regularly repeated activities seems to be the norm. And according to Cristian, we’re actually wired to do this. A line he said in a recent webinar really stuck with me.

“What you repeat you get to keep”.

The more often we do something, the more likely we are to continue to do that thing the same way. Unless something happens to change our thinking.

Autopilot is an interesting idea. We do things automatically and repeatedly and have practiced (whatever it is) for years so it’s now natural to us. Our mind has been programmed to eat, sleep, work, repeat.

This is great when everything is going as per normal. Throw a spanner in the works somewhere and autopilot isn’t going to be programmed to know how to deal with it. That’s where our conscious mind really has to kick in, but that’s going to be microseconds after the event. Too late.

Another reason we go into autopilot for repeated tasks is we’re rushed or frustrated. You might be working against the weather during harvest, trying to get as much crop off before the rain comes. Or a bearing seized on your machine and you need to get it replaced urgently to continue work, so you’re rushing to get to the local parts dealer before they close for the day.

In times like this we aren’t thinking about the now. We’re thinking ahead about how to with the current issue, and what else can you do if you can’t get it sorted.

Adrenalin and cortisol kick in and the conscious mind gets sidelined resulting in tunnel vision on the problem, which is where inattention and impulsivity can come in to play. Unnecessary risks are taken.

What else triggers inattention?

Fatigue is another great contributor to inattention. Without enough sleep and rest, the brain gets clogged up with waste products, impairing our conscious judgement.

Think about a ‘normal’ day for you. I bet, like many agricultural workers, you’re working 10-12 hours or more, and during peak times like harvest you’d probably pull a 18-20-hour day if you can.

I get it – that crop is your income, or at least a significant part of it so you need to get that in before anything goes wrong.

I also bet you’re running on fumes when it comes to sleep and rest, at least until the final crop is off. How’s your conscious decision making now?

I bet towards the end of harvest you’re running on auto-pilot, just doing what needs to be done to get finished without having to think much.

This is the time when ‘stupid’ or ‘silly’ accidents are more likely happen – the ones where you were just not paying attention.

Interestingly, the most common consequence of inattention is nothing. Not an incident of some kind. Nothing. Remember I said earlier, what you repeat you get to keep. When nothing happens when you’re inattentive, you feel safe. Nothing has ever happened before so why would it now? Not being hurt or involved in an incident doesn’t mean you’re always paying attention. We simply surrender control of our safety to autopilot.

Inattention exists for everyone

You, your workers, contractors, visitors, family, friends, neighbours. The challenge in agriculture is we work with some pretty dangerous things like machinery, animals, chemicals and more where inattention at the wrong time can be deadly.

We try to ensure we have safe systems of work and good management systems. The safety culture is good. But incidents still happen. And inattention will be a significant contributor to pretty much all of them. The trick is finding ways to get out of autopilot when doing the dangerous stuff.

Ask pretty much anyone and they will tell you they are paying attention. They genuinely believe they are attentive.

Ask them about which foot was first when putting on shoes this morning and see if they know the answer without having to think.

When you know about autopilot, you’re more aware of it in yourself and others so share the knowledge and make even a small change to your routine to bring you back into conscious control.

What you repeat, you get to keep.

If you want to know more, check out https://www.habitsafe.com.au/ and have a read of Cristian’s articles. You can even download a free copy of Part 1 of his book, Third Generation Safety: The Missing Piece

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Disclaimer: Content on this website may be of relevance to users outside of Australia, but content links and examples are specific to Australia. Please check with your local authority for your country and industry requirements.

Originally published 03 September, 2020.

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