Just Pay Attention and You Won’t Get Hurt!


I have been thinking about the role of “attention” in personal safety lately.  I can’t tell you how many times I have heard supervisors say…”He wouldn’t have gotten hurt if he had just been paying attention.”  In reality, he was paying attention, just to the wrong things.  Let me illustrate this with a brief observation.  Two of my grandsons (ages 4 and 6) play organized baseball.  The 4-year old plays what is called Tee-ball.  It is Tee-ball because the coach places the ball on a chest high Tee and the batter attempts to hit the ball into the field of play where there are players on the opposing team manning the normal defensive positions.  It is my observation of the players on defense that has helped me understand attention to a greater depth.  Most of the batters at this age can’t hit the ball past the infield and most of them are lucky to get it to the pitchers mound, so the outfielders have very little chance of actually having a ball get to them and they seem to know this.  For the most part, the “pitcher” (i.e., the person standing on the mound) and to some extent the other in-fielders watch the batter and respond to the ball.  The outfielders however are a very different story.  They spend their time playing in the dirt, rolling on the ground, chasing butterflies or chasing each other.  When, on the rare occasion that a ball does get to the outfield the coach has to yell instructions to his outfielders to get them to look for the ball, pick it up and throw it to the infield.  There is a definite difference of attention between the infield and the outfield in Tee-ball.  This is not the case in the “machine-pitch” league that my 6-year old grandson plays in however.    For the most part all of the defensive players seem to attend to the batter and respond when the ball is hit.  So what is the difference?  Obviously there is a maturational difference between the 4/5-year olds and the 6/7-year olds but I don’t think this explains all of the attentional difference because even Tee-ball players seem to pay more attention when playing the infield.  I think much of it has to do with expectations and saliency.  Attention is the process of selecting among the many competing stimuli that are present in one’s environment and then processing some while inhibiting the processing of others.  That selection process is driven by the goals and expectations that we have and the salience of the external variables in our environment.  The goal of a 4-year old “pitcher” is to impress her parents, grandparents and coach and she expects the ball to come her way, thus attention is directed to the batter and the ball.  The 4-year old outfielder has a goal of getting through this inning so that he can bat again and impress his audience knowing that the probability of having a ball come his way is very small.  The goals and expectations are different in the infield and outfield so the stimuli that are attended to are different.  The same is true in the workplace.  What is salient, important and obvious to the supervisor (after the injury occurred) are not necessarily what was salient, important and obvious to the injured employee before the injury occurred.  We can’t attend to everything, so it is the job of the supervisor (parent; Tee-ball coach) to make those stimuli that are the most important (e.g., risk in the workplace, batter and ball in the Tee-ball game) salient.  This is where the discussions that take place before, during and after the job are so important to focusing the attention of workers on the salient stimuli in their environment.  Blaming the person for “not paying attention” is not the answer because we don’t intentionally “not pay attention”.  Creating a context where the important stimuli are salient is a good starting point.