Control brain-centered hazards to improve safety: Speaker

Cognitive fatigue and other brain-centered hazards need to be controlled in the workplace in order to improve occupational health and safety, delegates heard at a recent CEO Health + Safety Leadership Network event.
“Brain centered hazards make us susceptible to errors at work and until we can mitigate these, we are not going to be able to nail the consistency piece,” said Michael Mangan, vice-president of research and development at Dekra Insight, speaking to a group of 55 senior leaders in Toronto on Oct. 24.

One such hazard is change blindness — a form of situational blindness — where something changes and an individual does not pick up on that change.

“While we are engaging in a cognitively tasking task, we can miss changes that occur right in front of us,” said Mangan. “Particularly at work when we are in a hazardous areas, you don’t want someone focused so much on a particular task that they are missing something significant around them.”

Workers need to have an awareness of change blindness and set “intentional broad looking missions,” he said. The human brain does not do this naturally; it has to be taught.

For example, when we are driving home on the same route every day, we enter into “fast brain" mode where we don’t think through the activities that are happening and we are essentially automatons in action. This similar effect can occur on the job.

“This is one of the reasons why some of your most experienced workers, typically doing routine tasks, are sometimes the most susceptible to risk and incidents because they are not thinking; they are doing it on automatic pilot,” Mangan said.

On the other hand, when companies are undertaking significant projects, such as a shut down or startup, there are very few incidents because workers are using their "slow brains" and they are more focused and attentive.

Another brain-centered hazard is micro sleep, which occurs when the brain shuts down for a couple of seconds because it is so fatigued. When the brain perceives a safe environment, such as during a routine task, if it needs the rest, it will go into a quick micro sleep — and most times the individual is completely unaware.

“We have seen this happen in the workplace. It is most susceptible to workers on the night shift… who are susceptible to six to eight episodes of micro sleep per shift, and they are in a control room or nuclear power plants and all kinds of dangerous areas,” said Mangan.

Another brain-centered hazard is urgency. The human brain experiences time pressures as a major stressor, and workers are less likely to be operating in slow brain mode during this state. Humans have difficulty thinking and making a decision when there is too much pressure.

“Which is part of the reason why emergency types of environments, like special forces, military, fire, police, they rehearse so often over and over and over and over, they drill, drill, drill and the reason is so because they know when they get into that high stress environment, urgency pressure, they know they are going to be in fast brain mode, so they are trying to practice so the activities are as rote as possible.”

Part of the challenge is how leaders send messages to their workers when there is urgency. It is extremely difficult to get high execution in a high urgency environment, he said, so it might be advantageous to the leaders to not relay the urgent circumstances to the workers on the front-line.