The hazards of lacking focus

Columnist Loretta Bouwmeester on the ill effects of the pandemic, why the lack of mind on task is a workplace hazard, and how to remedy it

The hazards of lacking focus
Distractions are a hazard in the workplace.
Loretta Bouwmeester

UMM, sorry did you say something — my mind was somewhere else? Did you see that coming, I didn’t?!? WHAT WAS I THINKING? I WAS TOTALLY DISTRACTED. All of those statements have very well been uttered at your worksite(s) lately given the sheer length of the pandemic. Our observation based on client experiences is that incidents and near misses are happening more and more often — especially in field-based, manufacturing and distribution settings, and at other front-line or essential services worksites. However, all workplaces can suffer when workers don’t have their minds on necessary tasks from both a productivity and safety perspective.

Stress, fatigue, drugs, and/or alcohol can impair a worker’s ability to stay focused while working. With workers not having their minds on task, there can be devastating outcomes. Life-altering injuries or even death can occur. Property damage, negative environmental impacts, loss of reputation, and/or loss of a social or regulatory license to operate can be further collateral damage. Stop work orders, administrative penalties, and prosecutions are other negative potential outcomes.

A lack of mind on task is a workplace hazard often caused by three key sources of impairment — fatigue, stress, and/or drugs or alcohol. While underlying mental or physical health issues can also be the cause, we focus on the first three key sources and what to do about them for hazard control purposes.

Losing Sleep — Situational & Health Based Fatigue

The pandemic has had many effects on relationships, family workings, schedules, opportunities for engagement, and support outside of the home. Some of them positive, but for many people, including your workers potentially, circadian rhythms have been negatively affected as has the ability to get to sleep and stay asleep. Sleep disorders like these may not being treated or even diagnosed. Fatigue is the end result of a numbers of factors including how long someone has been awake, the time of day relative to when they last slept, their natural rhythm, and workload. A lack of ‘sleep hygiene’ has been found to lead to devastating outcomes including the Chernobyl and Exxon Valdez Oil Spill disasters and can be as impairing as drugs or alcohol. Taking fatigue into account in scheduling workers, training them on the issue, and providing on-going supports can be just the right remedy and should be prioritized now more than ever.

Stress Overload — Leading to illness or Disability

Financial, marital, work load, or COVID-19 hypervigilance related stress can all be impairing, as can domestic violence heightened by forced lock-down confinement. COVID-19 has had negative effects on the ability for many people to access supports to identify and treat these and other serious sources of stress. Widely, and repeatedly, sharing your EAP (Employee Assistance Program) information is important (or local other resources if you don’t have one). As is ensuring that your Respect in the Workplace or other policy that addresses harassment and violence is up to date, readily available to employees, and properly implemented. Early identification and intervention through periodic wellness checks for team members working remotely in particular is too. Out of “sight” can lead to issues not being identified early on and a more serious situation having to be addressed once it is identified.

Self-medicating with Drugs and/or Alcohol — Dangerously Distracting

With extraordinary pandemic stresses, some workers have turned to drugs and/or alcohol to cope and can be distracted with cravings. Identifying workplace use and addiction issues is key to avoid impairment related incidents.

More that the Safety Team Employer Can Do

Ensuring that your health and safety committee is functioning well and that supervisors have the tools to properly identify and address hazards that could lead to impairment is crucial.

The very good news is that hope is alive and well. With vaccination levels continuing to increase across the country, and re-opening plans well underway, the negative effects of the pandemic should diminish over time, although they will have a hangover effect through what could last years, if not decades. For that reason, it is especially important to remain diligent in responding to, and guarding against, the ill-effects of the pandemic on workers’ ability to remain safely focused on task.

Loretta Bouwmeester is a partner in Mathews Dinsdale & Clark’s occupational health and safety and workers’ compensation practice in Calgary. She has close to 15 years of experience representing employers in British Columbia, Alberta and the Northwest Territories. She can be reached at (403) 538-5042 or [email protected] or visit for more information.


This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of COS.