Attention blindness: How workers miss obvious dangers

by on May 17, 2012 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

Some workers are focused so hard on what they’re doing that they don’t see obvious hazards.

“Joe, did you have blinders on?” asked Supervisor Rich Jones. “I can barely believe what happened here.”

“I’m sorry,” said worker Joe Reynolds. “I was concentrating on those stitch cuts, and didn’t see the lift, and I didn’t see Larry on the roof.”

Joe was helping to demolish the top of an oil tank. To do that, he used a torch-cutter to “stitch cut” the steel tank roof into sections, leaving a one-inch segment between the cuts so the roof wouldn’t fall. A crane was to be used to lower the sections.

Left hazard for worker
“Larry walked out onto that roof to inspect something for me,” said Rich. “He used a lift to get up there. And while he was standing on the roof, you cut the roof directly in front of the lift, then left without marking the area. You left a trap for him. He stepped right on the section you cut and fell through. You tell his widow what you did.”

“I’m sorry,” said Joe. Then, getting angry, he added, “But he knew I was up there, and he didn’t pay attention to what I was doing. If anything, this is your fault for sending him up there. Frankly, this whole demolition plan was unsafe. These stitch cuts were an accident waiting to happen.”

“The plan was fine,” said Rich. “But you weren’t thinking.”

Larry’s family sued Rich’s company, saying the company negligently supervised the work site. The company countered it had no knowledge of the danger.

The judges agreed with the company and dismissed the case. The supervisor didn’t have time to discover the dangerous condition, and so wasn’t legally liable.

For supervisors, this case illustrates attention blindness. That’s when workers get so focused on what they’re doing that they don’t even see obvious dangers. And both Larry and Joe, in this case, were blind to the encroaching danger.

Whenever you have workers doing high hazard work, you as a supervisor need to keep an eye on the big picture. If one worker is creating a hazard zone, keep everyone else out, if possible.

And if two workers must be in a hazard area together, you need to coordinate their efforts and supervise them carefully so they don’t harm each other.

Cite: Richard v. City of Austin, No. 03-05-00700, Texas App.

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