Psychological adaptation to hazardous work environments, and the “dual-attention” demand

Workers in constantly changing, dynamic and hazardous work environments must be attentive to safety at the same time that they must maintain their assigned production activities. As one NIOSH colleague summarized the problem: miners are not working 300 feet (91.5m) underground because that is a safe place to be, they are working there to extract coal.1 This is the “dual-attention demand” that is required of workers in all hazardous work. During the first hours of a shift, alertness may be high. But what about the eighth, ninth, or tenth hour on that shift?

Many different characteristics of hazardous work environments may be explored. For this presentation, we reference just a few of the conditions to which these workers are subject. For example, workers in healthcare (including EMT’s), construction, mining, agriculture, transport, firefighting, law enforcement, military, and workers in other hazardous work environments will take risks with their own lives to complete their assigned tasks, and to protect co-workers, patients, clients, and bystanders. For example, firefighters have a motto: Risk a lot to save a lot, risk a little to save a little, and risk nothing to save nothing. The U.S. Coast Guard unofficial motto is: You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.

Further, what is adaptation to hazardous work environments? After a tour of the NIOSH experimental coal mine, near Pittsburgh, PA., our Ironworker guests emerged from the mine stating that they could never work underground. The irony is that the Ironworkers in our mine tour routinely walk a 12-inch (30.5cm) – or less – steel beam at 100 feet (30.5m) above ground level. This is a small example of the adaptation that all workers in hazardous environments must perform every day on the job. Thus, we ask: is adaptation to a hazardous work environment any different from any other form of psychological adaptation?

This presentation is a blatant appeal for perception and cognitive psychologists and for other neuroscientists to engage their training and experience to assist safety professionals regarding effective adaptation and to distinguish it from dysfunctional adaptation and/or habituation.

Dr. Ted Scharf is Research Psychologist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the USA. His research interests are about workload, stress, and risks for injury in hazardous work environments.

Dr. Emily Haas has worked at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health for eight years. She is currently the project officer for multiple projects that are focused on identifying personal, organizational, and environmental risk factors in various workplace settings. Dr. Haas specializes in developing, implementing, and evaluating organizational-level interventions with a present emphasis on improving employee engagement in response to new and evolving technologies, including how workers and managers can better measure and mitigate health hazards in the workplace. Dr. Haas has authored over 75 publications and provided over 100 technical presentations, including workshops and keynotes at international health and safety conferences. Dr. Haas received the Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering in 2016; the Arthur S. Flemming Award in the Social Science, Clinical Trials, and Translational Research in 2018; and, in addition to being a Samuel Hyman Finalist, received the Gears of Government Presidential Award for her research in organizational safety culture in 2019.

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