Machine Safety: Does multitasking provide an effective illusion of safety?

Is it possible to have everyone’s safety behavior in the factory exactly as it should be 24/7 without exception? Can safety performance always be at its peak? Are we capable of safe multitasking?


This Lockout Center board is used at the Yaskawa America Oak Creek, Wis., plant. CFE Media photo: Mark T. HoskeImagine – everyone’s safety behavior in the factory is spot on 24/7 without exception and safety performance is at its peak. Is this an illusion or is it real?


In my opinion its best to look at this question first by ruling out what doesn’t apply to this assessment. By this statement I’m talking about the golden “Hierarchy of Measures” for risk reduction. In review, they are:


1) Eliminate the hazard – design it out

2) Isolate the hazard with hard guarding

3) Add additional engineering, guards, devices, or layers of safety

4) Administrative controls like – training, signage, assessments, etc.

5) Personal protective equipment (PPE) like - goggles, gloves, outer clothing, shields, etc.


Assuming that all hazards have been identified we can probably say that Measures 1, 2 and 3 have been applied as appropriate reducing those hazards to acceptable levels. With that said we can also say that Measures 4 and 5 and any residual risks are then subject to behavior related solutions for risk reduction. Multitasking is definitely a human behavior. So, this discussion should only concern human behavior, right?


Well, not so fast. The reason for pausing is to first acknowledge that the concurrent performance of several tasks has also been a focused capability of computer type processes. However, we will rule computer type systems out of this discussion for now because their designs, applications and performance for performing safety functions are thoroughly covered via international and domestic standards. On the other hand, human behavior safety practices are mostly addressed via procedures and training. Safety solutions based on procedures and training are largely based on single tasking human behavior. But, this is where the precise risk level scoring approaches begin to get murky.


At this point our friends the cognitive psychologists enter the room where they begin describing two very different forms of human behavior – the automatic process versus the controlled process. It seems we humans have tremendous capabilities to multitask two or more automatic processes or an automatic process with a controlled process. Some humans are even capable of multitasking two controlled processes but generally not very well. So what are these two kinds of processes?


Automatic process examples include; smoking a cigarette, drinking water, listening to music, or walking. Controlled process examples include; driving through traffic, climbing a ladder, or having a conversation. Many of us have had the experience of getting lost in a conversation and realizing that you’ve been daydreaming or visibly distracted. This is an example of multitasking in a controlled process and an automatic process according to psychologists.


Now, think of an example where someone in a factory setting has been injured. Possibly a technician was trouble shooting an electrical connection without following the required lockout/tagout procedure to save time. And, perhaps the technician was injured because he was multitasking performing a controlled process while he was involved in an automatic process of thinking about the argument he just finished with his supervisor.


When there’s no accident or injury is the completion of a task an illusion of safety?


J.B. Titus, CFSEYour comments or suggestion are always welcome so please let us know your thoughts. Submit your ideas, experiences, and challenges on this subject in the comments section below.


Related articles:

Machine Guarding & The Hierarchy of Measures for Hazard Mitigation

Machine Safety: System degradation and incidence of injury

Machine safety: DANGER: Machine without brain requires yours!

Machine Safety Culture – compliance versus cooperation driven.


Contact: for “Solutions for Machine Safety”.

No comments
The Top Plant program honors outstanding manufacturing facilities in North America. View the 2015 Top Plant.
The Product of the Year program recognizes products newly released in the manufacturing industries.
The Engineering Leaders Under 40 program identifies and gives recognition to young engineers who...
Safety for 18 years, warehouse maintenance tips, Ethernet and the IIoT, GAMS 2016 recap
2016 Engineering Leaders Under 40; Future vision: Where is manufacturing headed?; Electrical distribution, redefined
Strategic outsourcing delivers efficiency; Sleeve bearing clearance; Causes of water hammer; Improve air quality; Maintenance safety; GAMS preview
SCADA at the junction, Managing risk through maintenance, Moving at the speed of data
Safety at every angle, Big Data's impact on operations, bridging the skills gap
The digital oilfield: Utilizing Big Data can yield big savings; Virtualization a real solution; Tracking SIS performance
Applying network redundancy; Overcoming loop tuning challenges; PID control and networks
Driving motor efficiency; Preventing arc flash in mission critical facilities; Integrating alternative power and existing electrical systems
Package boilers; Natural gas infrared heating; Thermal treasure; Standby generation; Natural gas supports green efforts

Annual Salary Survey

Before the calendar turned, 2016 already had the makings of a pivotal year for manufacturing, and for the world.

There were the big events for the year, including the United States as Partner Country at Hannover Messe in April and the 2016 International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago in September. There's also the matter of the U.S. presidential elections in November, which promise to shape policy in manufacturing for years to come.

But the year started with global economic turmoil, as a slowdown in Chinese manufacturing triggered a worldwide stock hiccup that sent values plummeting. The continued plunge in world oil prices has resulted in a slowdown in exploration and, by extension, the manufacture of exploration equipment.

Read more: 2015 Salary Survey

Maintenance and reliability tips and best practices from the maintenance and reliability coaches at Allied Reliability Group.
The One Voice for Manufacturing blog reports on federal public policy issues impacting the manufacturing sector. One Voice is a joint effort by the National Tooling and Machining...
The Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals an organization devoted...
Join this ongoing discussion of machine guarding topics, including solutions assessments, regulatory compliance, gap analysis...
IMS Research, recently acquired by IHS Inc., is a leading independent supplier of market research and consultancy to the global electronics industry.
Maintenance is not optional in manufacturing. It’s a profit center, driving productivity and uptime while reducing overall repair costs.
The Lachance on CMMS blog is about current maintenance topics. Blogger Paul Lachance is president and chief technology officer for Smartware Group.
This article collection contains several articles on the vital role of plant safety and offers advice on best practices.
This article collection contains several articles on the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and how it is transforming manufacturing.
This article collection contains several articles on strategic maintenance and understanding all the parts of your plant.
click me