Prioritisation of Tasks
Along with delegation and sharing tasks, another important element of task management in high-risk industries involves the prioritisation of tasks and ensuring that the most safety-critical tasks are performed effectively.
In the aviation industry, there has been a long-established axiom of 1 aviate, navigate then communicate’. This provides a powerfully simple mnemonic for task prioritisation, with the first priority being to keep the aircraft in the air, then pointing in an optimal direction, and then to communicate with external parties such as air traffic control. This approach can be easily adapted to a range of other work environments.
The Negative Impact of Interruptions
Interruptions are well known to create an insidious barrier to effective task management in many high-risk industries. Given the limits of our attentional system and our limited ability to perform concurrent tasks, as discussed in the Compensatory Control and the Effort Monitor section, any interruption has the potential to lead to omitted tasks and other forms of error. For instance, in a study of approximately 40,000 medication errors, it was found that distractions were identified as a contributing factor in 49% of medication errors.10
Research has demonstrated, though, that the effects of interruptions and distractions can be mitigated through effective task management practices. For instance, in a simulator study, anaesthetists who deferred or blocked an interruption made significantly fewer errors in the task at hand than those who engaged with the interruption.11 This highlights that not allowing an interruption to disrupt current task completion is an effective strategy. However, this is not always an appropriate strategy. Ensuring the correct resumption of a task after it has been interrupted is the key to avoiding errors. Starting the task again from the beginning, or making a note of where you were up to in a task such that items are not omitted, is known to reduce the likelihood of an error resulting from the interruption.