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Recognizing and Combating the Half-Attention Mindset

The human imagination leads to invention, invention leads to innovation, and innovation leads to progress. The brainpower of humanity is why we have space travel, the electric grid and a cellphone in nearly every pocket. Who knows what we will come up with in another 50 years.

Humans also have an amazing capacity for making ourselves believe things that may or may not be true. Self-awareness and rationalization are two of the most fundamental differences between humans and other animals.

Because humans are capable of so much, we sometimes think we can do things that we simply cannot. One issue that I confront every day with my workforce ties into the categories of complacency and risk tolerance. By now, most if not all of us know what it means to be complacent; essentially, it means that a person’s full attention or care is not being applied to the task they are performing.

Each of us is complacent every day. For some of us, we pull into our driveway after work, not remembering much of the drive home because our brain was on autopilot. Others try to perform additional tasks while driving a car, such as talking on the phone, eating food or applying makeup. Sometimes we’re checking our child’s homework while cutting up veggies for dinner. Humans rationalize these actions as multitasking, but – spoiler alert – multitasking is not something humans can actually do. Your brain is not focused on two things at once but rather one thing at a time for a short period of time.

Personally, I refer to multitasking as the “half-attention mindset.” In our line of work, this mindset is incredibly and increasingly hazardous. It ties in with my theory about invisible distractions, but unlike invisible distractions – where we are not aware that our attention is being pulled away – we think we are in control with half-attention. In fact, some of us think it is not only something we can control but something at which we can excel. For those people who list multitasking as a skill on their résumé or present it as a talent in a job interview, what you are really saying is, “I don’t pay full attention to the thing I am doing. I pay half-attention to several things at once, so it may take me longer to accomplish a task, and when I do accomplish it, the quality is sometimes lower than it should be.”

In the context of our industry, if workers are in the field working on or near energized lines and equipment, we need them to pay full attention to the tasks they are performing. This is easy to say, but is it realistic? Companies make safety, training, construction, hydration monitoring, material accuracy, time charging, skills assessments and more the responsibilities of these employees. Are we sure they are focusing only on the individual task they are performing?

The answer is probably not. It’s likely that at least some workers are only paying half-attention, meaning that they are not always focused on the task that is directly in front of them. So, let me ask another question: Are our crews still focused on the flash potential inside an underground transformer if they are concerned about hydration monitoring or talking about what they are going to do after work?

The dirty little secret is that we are never going to eliminate the half-attention mindset. We can’t engineer half-attention out of our work or wear PPE specifically to combat it. What can we do? Increase awareness of the topic. How? Discuss it during morning meetings, tailboards and pre-job briefings. Make crew members aware that their mind will wander during the day and that they must bring it back into focus. Also make them aware that when they think they are multitasking, what they are really doing is paying half-attention to multiple things. Once we are made aware of the behavior, we can work to recognize it when it happens, and then refocus to full attention to safely complete the task we are performing.

There are no half-accidents. We must increase awareness and educate our workforce about the dangers of the half-attention mindset. Before your next morning meeting, look around to see how many of your crew members are physically or mentally multitasking. If you look closely enough, you may be shocked by the results. Then begin the meeting by asking the crew for their full attention.

About the Author: Jeffrey Sullivan is the director of safety and training for Homosassa, Florida-based F&H Contractors. He has been working in the electrical utility industry since 2001, first for two large utilities prior to transitioning to his current role. Sullivan has experience in overhead and underground line construction and maintenance as a journeyman lineman and foreman, and more recently with utility engineering and design management.