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Safeguard Magazine

True confessions—Multi-tasking mishap

STEVE WORSLEY reflects on the perils of divided attention when carrying out a high-risk task.

Nearly 15 years ago – just before I started working in safety – I was renovating our tired and weary old stucco house. I’d been using large mobile plant to dig out and lay a new driveway, a wheelbarrow to shift 15 tonnes of river stones, and a Hiab to lift in trees for landscaping.

I couldn’t help but wonder how someone like me was able to rock up to the hire shop, show my driver’s licence, and drive away with machinery like a four-tonne roller. These machines were new to me, so perhaps my awareness of risk was heightened. I took way more time than anyone proficient would have taken but came through it unscathed. But it wasn’t the big scary machines or the long hard hours of manual work that taught me a lesson.

One fine day I was up a ladder painting the outside of the house. My wife, daughter and mother were out for the day shopping, and I was cracking on ready to impress them when they returned. That’s when things started to go wrong.

There was noise and excitement in the driveway below me, and lots of talk about purchases and how good the house was looking, but I didn’t stop what I was doing to listen properly. I didn’t get down from my ladder and pay attention. Instead I tried to split my attention and multi-task. (Joanne tells me she is able to do this way more proficiently than any man she knows, but I have since learned that cognitive science has proven multi-tasking is fiction – we simply cannot do this effectively or without risk. Sorry Jo!)

So there I was, up a ladder, paint pot in one hand, brush in another (no three points of contact here) and as I turned around slightly, to see what all the fuss was about, my weight shifted and I started to fall. It all happened in slow motion. As my weight shifted my body twisted further, thus exacerbating the problem and throwing the ladder away from me with my feet. My hands went in the air, the brush went in one direction and the paint tin fell to the ground, covering my new driveway in a lovely beige colour.

As the ladder fell away from me, happily missing the crowd below, my head started to pass my feet and things started to speed up as I hurtled towards the ground. Thankfully, though at the time it didn’t seem like a blessing, I bounced off a large stack of house brick which absorbed some of the speed and reduced the force with which my now crumpled body landed in a heap on the newly beige driveway.

Adrenalin and cortisol ran through my veins and the fight-or-flight response kicked in. I shot to my feet, let out a roar of agony and ran away from the three ladies who, still carrying their shopping bags, were now chasing and fussing over me.

I was sure I had broken my elbow as the pain was excruciating, but the doctor said I’d been very lucky and only badly bruised the bone, but I still suffered several weeks of pain and discomfort.

The lesson? Easy: my family is banned from shopping together when I am working on the house! Seriously though, I learned that when our environment changes we become more vulnerable to the risks inherent in the task we are doing.

Since then, whenever my family comes home, it’s time for a cup of tea and a chat about their day, a forced break if you will, before getting my mind focused and back on the task.

Tauranga-based Steve Worsley is a director of Coachio Ltd and is about to commence PhD study on the neuropsychology of risk perception and response.

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