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.


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