Every summer it’s the same. The temperature is creeping toward being too hot to even stand outside, let alone work in. The equipment that’s designed to protect you feels hot and uncomfortable, as though collectively conspiring to make your day just that little bit harder.
Your safety goggles pool with beads of sweat that pour out profusely in the heat and that’s the last straw – the eye protection comes off. Nothing feels as good as the bliss of the mildly cooling air on your skin, am I right? You’ve never once had an accident – nothing will even go near your eyes you think to yourself. What could possibly go wrong?
Nails embedded in the socket, chemical burns to the retina and hooks in the eye are just some of the horrific injuries caused by a failure to wear goggles on construction sites. Even a small, needle-sized injury can cause traumatic cataract or retinal damage, which can cause blindness. And that’s not to mention all the injuries to other parts of the body attributable to inattentional blindness.
Being adequately fuelled is crucial to sustaining both body and brain, so when the temperature’s up and fasting is in full flow it’s not surprising that workers’ attention may suffer slightly.
The classic example demonstrating inattentional blindness is illustrated in a video clip with a gorilla. Psychologists Daniel Simons and Chris Chabris recreated the original study in 1975 by Ulric Neisser where two basketball teams pass the ball around. A person wearing a gorilla suit wanders onto the court, thumps his chest and wanders off. In trials conducted by the team at Harvard University typically around 60% of viewers do not see the gorilla. How could this be possible? Before the clip is played, the viewers are asked to count how many times the ball is passed within a certain team. They expect to see the ball moving between players and focus on this task so intently that the gorilla is simply not noticed.
Inattentional blindness is not a cognitive or visual defect. It’s essentially an issue of awareness – principally the failure to notice an entirely visible, though unexpected object because our brains are otherwise engaged. There’s a limit to what our brains can cope with, you see. In deciding where to focus, our brain scans around 30-40 pieces of data (sights, sounds, smells etc.) every second until something grabs its attention. It then filters out what it feels is important and the rest gets left behind.
The gorilla video excited so many people that Simons and Chabris produced a sequel in 2010. This time we were ready and expecting the gorilla to appear. Sure enough it did, but viewers were so intent on looking for it that they missed several other unexpected events, such as the curtain in the background changing colour.
How can it be that we continue to miss so many significant events? Well, when choosing where to focus its energy, the brain applies four filters:
- Capacity – Our capacity to pay attention is essentially down to our mental aptitude and is influenced by a range of factors including age, education, distraction, fatigue and consumption of intoxicants.
- Expectation – Our past experiences shape our future expectations. As an example, on a recent visit to one of our clients’ factories, when I asked why employees did not respond to the warning alarms on a production line they told me that because the alarms go off with such regularity but are usually ‘false alarms’, they now didn’t notice them at all.
- Mental workload – The perceptual loading of the brain increases the likelihood of inattentional blindness. Chances increase when our attention is diverted to a secondary task, for example filling in an online form whilst holding a conversation about an important subject.
- Conspicuity refers to the degree to which an object or information jumps out to command our attention. Our brains are drawn to sensory conspicuity – the contrast of an object against its background – like a bright red car on a sunny day on the highway, or cognitive conspicuity where we are more likely to notice something particularly relevant to us, e.g. a car the same as the one we are driving on the highway.
These filters can bring benefit, such as blocking out distractions to allow us to concentrate on a task in hand. But because most of us tend to be unaware of the limits of our attention we take on other activities whilst engaged in primary tasks and it’s here – with this multi-tasking that is becoming so common nowadays – that the real risk lies when it comes to safety.
Think about using a mobile telephone while driving. For many people making a call while driving is still perceived to be an acceptable task. They are convinced they would notice a sudden event occurring, but even with the bright red flash of brake lights, they don't. One in every four road crashes involves a driver on the phone. Isn’t it time to consider their impact on our attention? At certain times, we might be at even higher risk of inattentional blindness – for example at Ramadan, when workers are fasting. Even though the body is given less nutrition it is still expected to give 100% at work. Each year there’s a notable increase in car accidents around Ramadan – is it likely that inattentional blindness affects workers more at that time of year?
Next time your accident investigation draws you to conclude that the individual involved was negligent, careless or ‘not paying attention’, take a step back. Studies have shown that even the most attentive, intelligent and vigilant people would suffer the same degree of inattentional blindness in similar situations. So consider the four brain filters carefully and see whether you notice any gorillas.
As I write this I’m in Nairobi, the fantastic capital city of Kenya. Arriving after an easy long-haul from Geneva, with plenty of good in-flight movies, I’m happy to be here. After all, Nairobi is famous for being the only city on our planet that has a game reserve actually within the city limits. Just a few months ago a lion escaped from the park and was filmed wandering around the city, before it got fed up and decided to play tag with an elderly gent on his way down to the shops.1
Landing at Nairobi’s International Airport is surreal, especially in daylight. Giraffe, herds of wildebeest, zebra and a whole host of wild animals I can’t put a name to maraud across the plains below the 747 in which I safely sit. The feeling of awe doesn't change as I enter the airport. Vast empty spaces – perhaps lying in wait for a rapid influx of visitors – stand out conspicuously. And then, nothing. As I step out into the humid warmth it’s eerily quiet. Rounding the corner and it's suddenly all over me – crowds, noise, crowds and yet more noise. Where’s my cab?! As I stand on the kerb a 10-year-old wanders past and asks me if I want to buy some marijuana.
Finally, in the hotel, I check in with home. Re-telling the stories of my travels, my other half – audibly concerned – asserts that it’s ‘not safe’ for me to leave the hotel and begs me to stay put.
She – like many of us – has fallen victim to the Salience Effect, a phenomenon that ensures that we pay more attention to certain features than they may actually deserve. She’s already subconsciously picked out what her brain feels are the salient points of my trip so far. Completely missing my splendid in-flight movie, the bump-free flight, the awesome vistas below the plane, and the exciting hubbub in the street. The salient facts for her – wild animals on the loose and narcotic toting infants – are front of mind. And she’s not alone. As humans, we always recall the undesirable exceptions more easily: they’re particularly salient.
Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman and his pal Amos Tversky realised that we place (often unnecessarily) heavier emphasis on salient information. This explains why Boards are as averse to news of a spate of Lost Time Injuries as they are to financial dips, and why, when a really serious accident occurs it’s all hands to the deck as everyone scrambles to prevent it happening again.
“So what does all this have to do with safety?” I hear you ask. Well, it’s not all about the man-eating lions and lost time injuries. Salient data has the ability to run rampage over what we think, how we behave and what we say. And what’s more, as the Salience Effect kicks in and switches our attention to those explicitly ‘unsafe behaviours’ in the workplace it means we tend to overlook hidden, slow-to-develop, subtle factors and less-easy-to-spot behaviours, as our attention is drawn sharply to what our mind tells us is most important.
Now we’ve considered the human factors related to using our eyes at work in the broad sense, let’s consider the immediate risks to our eyes. In the time it’ll take you to read this article at least six workers will have suffered an eye injury that will result in them receiving medical treatment today.
In the United States alone eye injuries happen at a rate of knots: more than 700,000 each year at a cost of around 300 million US Dollars. That’s an average of 2,000 every day, or an astonishing one every 43 seconds. Okay, quick! Take 43 seconds now to think about the causes of eye injuries. Go ahead and grab a sheet of paper and jot down as many as you can while the clock ticks forward. How did you do? I’d bet you have a good list. Here’s mine:
- Chemical and thermal burns – splashes and fumes from industrial chemicals or cleaning products are common causes of chemical burns to eyes. Thermal burns to the eyes also occur, often among welders. Burns can routinely damage workers’ eyes and surrounding facial tissue.
- Impact – The majority of eye injuries result from small particles or objects striking or scraping the eye, such as dust and airborne particles, grit, metal swarf, glass fragments and wood chips. These materials are often ejected by tools or machinery, blown by the wind or process air, or fall from above a worker. Large objects may also strike the eye or face, or a worker may run into an object causing blunt-force trauma to the eyeball or eye socket. Larger objects like staples, nails, or slivers of wood or metal can pierce the eyeball and result in a permanent loss of vision.
- Radiation – hazardous radiation caused by ultraviolet radiation, lasers, heat, infrared, and even visible light can cause damage to the eye.
Beyond the obvious safety hazards, it’s worth thinking about health issues too. Eye diseases can be transmitted through the mucous membranes of the eye as a result of direct exposure to things like blood splashes, airborne droplets from coughing or sneezing, or from touching the eyes with a contaminated finger or object. Eye diseases can result in a range of symptoms from minor reddening or soreness of the eye to life-threatening diseases such as HIV, hepatitis B virus, or avian influenza.
An ounce of prevention
So if the causes of eye injuries are so easily identified, why is it that so many occur? Well the American Academy of Ophthalmology reckon it’s because we don’t wear our safety glasses. The AAO calculate that of the 700,000 injuries in the US each year, over 90% of them could have been avoided through the selection and use of correct safety eyewear. Eye-opening, isn’t it?
So why don’t workers wear their glasses? Well, that’s where things get interesting. A research study by the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety identified the array of factors that influence workers’ decisions to wear personal protective eyewear. In order of importance, they concluded:
- Style, comfort and fit – our faces are different, so having a choice of styles can help improve comfort, which increases likelihood of use. If the eyewear looks cool, chances of use increase even more!
- Fogging / misting – in warm weather or hot work environments there may be a chance that workers get hot and sweaty or humidity builds up around the glasses.
- Accessibility / availability in workplace – 80% of workers in the research study said a major factor was where the PPE was kept – no-one wants to take a long walk to the stores.
- Scratching – 85% of workers said glasses scratching easily was a barrier to wearing them.
- Interference with own spectacles – linked to the first point, make sure you have alternatives for those with prescription eyewear.
- Task suitability – a large proportion of eye injuries occur when safety glasses are being worn, with particles entering the eye from around the glasses. Take care to match PPE to the task, as one size won’t fit all.
As Benjamin Franklin once said “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Nowadays there’s such a great range of eye protection available that choosing the right type for specific work situations is easier than ever before. During your risk assessment consider the nature and extent of the hazard, the circumstances of exposure, other protective equipment used, and personal vision needs. Pay particular attention to localised conditions – for example working temperatures in the Middle East may mean that bulky or heavy duty eye protection quickly mists up or fills with pools of sweat – a bit like wearing badly-fitting goggles when swimming – it really won’t have people rushing to wear them! Remember that eye protection should fit an individual properly and be adjustable to provide appropriate coverage. Recheck the previous list of potential barriers to wearing eye protection to be sure you cover all the bases.
In this article we’ve looked at the prevalence of eye injuries, found some eye-watering statistics, and learned that almost all eye injuries could be prevented with a little thought about human factors.
Our ability to see and understand the risks we face in the workplace is subject to a range of psychological filters that can mask the information we really need.
Don’t be blind-sided by the unusual and irregular – the lions in the street and the kids on the corner – push back against the obvious and dig a little deeper into what’s going on around you right now – there just may be something worth paying even more attention to.
Maybe you think no one will care whether you’re wearing eye protection so long as the job gets done, and maybe on some sites that is still the case. But whether or not your employer cares isn’t the question you should be asking. They’re your eyes – surely it should be you who pushes to protect them, to seek out PPE and make sure it’s provided and then wear it? Even if your employer doesn’t care, what will your family say? How will you feel when you can never see them again? When you can no longer watch your favourite programme, work and earn money to support your family, see smiling faces or a sunrise?
Was it worth it, to feel for those few minutes or hours that you weren’t overheating? Isn’t a lifetime of health worth more to you than that? Keep sight of the bigger picture, both in terms of inattentional blindness and long term eye health, and stay safe on site.