Dirty Dozen: Distraction

England’s Jimmy Carr hosted a game show called “Distraction” in which four contestants competed to answer general knowledge questions while being distracted. According to www.comedycentral.com, contestant distractions included anything from having to urinate on demand, to watching their moms get electrocuted, to being thrown around by a wrestler, all while answering questions. Both Brits and Americans ate up the show’s shock and humor and demanded a second season of the program, which started on England’s Channel 4 on April 16, 2004.

For those in the aviation field, and for those who depend on them, distraction is no laughing matter.

The Maintenance and Ramp Safety Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing aviation human error, released a series of posters that name the “Dirty Dozen” of most prevalent human factors-related errors. Distraction is number four on its list, coming in behind lack of communication, complacency, and lack of knowledge.

Distraction can be either external, like a phone call or a co-worker chatting with you, or it can be internal, like stressing about bills or regretting last night’s burrito.

External distraction

MRSS suggests that when you work on a project, you should use a detailed check sheet to keep track of task completion. If you get interrupted, you should always finish the job or unfasten the connection. That way, if you get a phone call or have to attend a meeting, you know exactly where you left off.

Bruce Landsberg, executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, suggests that when performing vital tasks, you should become an introvert and not talk to anyone. He cautions that one should be especially careful when someone else is there to “help.” If you choose to engage in conversation, stop what you’re doing entirely, speak, and then pick up your work three steps back from where you left off.

It’s better to make it very obvious that something is incomplete, rather than have someone else come along to try to pick up where you left off and and miss something that you didn’t finish. Always mark uncompleted work. Use lockwire where possible or use Torqueseal to provide a visual indication to co-workers that something is unfinished.

When returning to the job, MRSS advises that you go back three steps. Likewise, if you are paying more attention to the radio than you are to your work and lose your place, back track. Think about the last few things you did and make sure that they are done properly.

When you think you are done, double check your work and have someone else look it over. Two pair of eyes will always be better than one pair that could be glazed over from long hours spent on the job.

Internal distraction

Karl Schlimm of FCI Emergency Maneuver Training reminds pilots that they have a responsibility “not only to passengers, but to those on the ground who many times become the victims of an avoidable aircraft accident.” This is true also for those mechanics whose work is the foundation for the safety of passengers and others. Ensuring airworthiness is not a task to be taken lightly.

Schlimm says that timely decision making depends largely on mental preparation. Consider whether or not you are mentally prepared. Any personal issues that you are struggling with could cause your mind to wander. If you just had a fight with your spouse, or if your road rage flared up on the way to work when someone cut you off, it can be hard not to bring the associated feelings to work with you. However, a separation between feelings and responsibilities has to be made.

You also need to be well-rested to be able to perform at your best. It’s hard to do good work when you keep yawning and leaving the work floor to get more coffee. If you see someone like this, it would be a good idea to double-check their work. Your job is to prepare an aircraft for flight and ensure its airworthiness, the yawner’s feelings be damned.

Next, consider whether or not you are adequately trained for the assigned task. Any amount of self-doubt can interfere with your mental process and affect the outcome of your work. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but don’t lose focus.

It is extremely important to focus on one task at a time. It is better to prioritize and concentrate fully on one thing and do it well, rather than do four things simultaneously and poorly.

Use your checklist, get enough sleep, and learn to “check your baggage at the door.” There is no excuse that can explain away a preventable maintenance error – not even having stayed up late to watch a British comedian instigate misery for game show contestants.

For more human factors advice from MRSS, visit www.mrss.org.