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Destructive Power of Distractions in the Workplace – Part 1

By Carl Potter, CSP

No doubt, you’ve seen a lot of information in the press in the past year about distracted driving, and recently about distracted walking.  Distractions can lead to destruction of persons and property.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll take a look at how distractions are truly a workplace hazard that must be recognized and controlled.

Distractions Described
When attempting to describe a distraction, one finds that they come in many forms.  It could be said that anything could be a distraction.  Further, to say that distractions can lead to destruction is like saying, “Falling in the ocean can lead to drowning,” duh.  Distractions in some cases can be relaxing and lead to improved creativity.  These, however, might better be characterized as diversions, such as music playing in the background, a quick walk around the block to release tension, a drive through the countryside to change the scenery, so on and so forth.  So the question is, “When does something become a distraction that can lead to destruction?

A few years ago two pilots flying (or you could say, riding on) a commercial airliner overflew the Minneapolis, Minnesota airport with a load of passengers.  Normal calls went out from air traffic controllers to contact them along the route without a response.  Soon the calls became frantic before the airplane flew into Canadian airspace.  Fighter jets were scrambled to identify the aircraft and possibly shoot it down if necessary.  Finally, contact was made and the pilots turned the plane around and landed safely.  Conflicting stories soon revealed that the pilots had a laptop running to discuss the scheduling issues and problems that could only be dealt with by those at a higher pay level.  Later the pilots blamed the situation on being distracted by operational issues.

Company Issues:  A Big Distraction
The distraction of company operational issues could have led to the destruction of an aircraft and the deaths of many human beings.  It did lead to the destruction of two careers as the result of allowing a distraction into the cockpit of the airplane.  It is my bet that they couldn’t get a job flying with any major airline after this event.  As a private pilot and certified flight instructor (CFI). it is easy for me to see how easily this could happen.  Let me clarify, I am in no way condoning what they did, but am fully aware that without recognizing and adjusting my own behavior, “…there go I.” That’s why I believe it is important for us to think about, identify and understand what distracts us.

Think about the last time you were distracted by something going on at work – something such as rumors of or actual layoffs, a new competitor entering your company’s market, a new boss, the loss of a company benefit.  The list can go on and on.  Distractions in the workplace can be described as a hazard.  Like all hazards, if they go unrecognized, the risk they pose cannot be mitigated.
Control the Hazard of Company Distractions

If you saw a spill on the floor near the coffee pot in the break room, you likely would stop and clean it up – or at least expect someone to take care of it – so no one would slip and fall.  Right?  If you heard a coworker who was working in or around potentially hazardous conditions complaining about the recent union negotiations or the change in work hours, you might just join in on that conversation to put your two cents in.  Soon everyone around might jump in on that conversation and everyone’s emotions would be running high – all this while you continue to do your work.  Would anyone bother to stop the work or stop the conversation because the situation could be hazardous and lead to mistakes that can cause injury?  Maybe not.

Take time to be aware of times when things going on in the workplace can cause distractions to you and your coworkers.  Consider these steps:

1. If you have a group meeting prior to beginning a job, such as a tailboard or job briefing, make sure you ask everyone to focus on the job at hand, particularly if you know the potential for group distraction exists.
2. Call a ‘time out’ if a conversation about what is going on at work becomes distracting. Remind everyone to refocus their thoughts on the work at hand and let everyone know they can talk about the company issues at lunch or at the end of the day.
3. If the issues are significant and cannot wait, consider having a ‘town hall’ meeting with a company leader who can listen to and address the concerns of employees.

Delimit the Distractions

Take notice when a group is becoming distracted by company issues and deal with the situation.  While it’s easy to get caught up in the conversations that can become heated, help yourself and your coworkers have a day where nobody gets hurt by taking steps to put limits on the destructive power of distractions.  Sometimes those distractions can be quite obvious.
Click Here to Read Part 2 of the Destructive Power of Distractions in the Workplace, we’ll look at Technology Distractions


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