Distracted Working

Cellular phone and mobile device technology have advanced at an amazing pace in the past decade. New data shows that more than half of all Americans have smartphones in their pockets. Records show that America is sending approximately 3 billion texts per day, most of them during working hours. According to Pew Research Center, 61 percent of Americans have smartphones and 91 percent of Americans have some sort of cell phone. That leaves only 9 percent of the population owning no cell phone at all.

Smartphone ownership in the United States has skyrocketed during the past decade.In fact, mobile devices have advanced more quickly than policy makers can create policies addressing how, when, and where to regulate their use. In a fast-paced world, these new devices have endeared themselves to a working society as a way to keep up with busy lives. At the touch of a screen, people are checking calendars, calling the doctor's office, checking in with their kids, tracking a package, depositing a check . . . all from our pockets.

In the meantime, laws and policies that address texting and distracted driving have been drafted, proposed, and, in some cases, passed. But what about other types of distracted workplace tasks, in addition to driving? Aren't there other workplace situations where mobile device usage may be just as unsafe? Absolutely. Workplaces must catch up with technology and broaden their assessment of the risks associated with personal electronic mobile devices. Chances are, improper usage affects much more than driving safety.

Defining a Scope of 'Distraction' As it Relates to Workplace Safety and Mobile Devices
Driving and texting is just one of many examples of an operating environment where distractions from the usage of mobile devices may contribute to workplace accidents. Instead of "Distracted Driving," broaden the distraction of electronic devices to encompass any unsafe task, referring to the action as "Distracted Working" instead. As with any policy, when creating workplace rules for electronic device usage, consider how best to address the hazardous behavior in the simplest way; consider the who, what, when and where.

Distracted working, especially in operational environments, certainly poses a potential for increased workplace hazards. Examples of types of working environments or job functions that should be included in Distracted Working guidelines or policies:

  • operation of heavy equipment
  • operation of motorized equipment
  • operation of power tools
  • maintenance activities associated with energized equipment
  • permit-required confined space attendants
  • fire watch
  • monitoring the safety of patrons (such as lifeguards or sports and recreation)

Workplace Fatality: Distracted Forklift Operator Kills Co-Worker
Forklift operator Ramon Jamison discusses what happened the day he was distracted by texting and struck a co-worker: "I usually keep my phone in my locker every morning, but my wife was having an ultrasound that morning and I wanted to know if we were having a little boy or a little girl, so I kept my phone with me," says Ramon. "I was moving stacks of pallets in the storage yard when I heard the message alert go off," he adds. Ramon says he was so excited to find out that he didn't even think about not checking his text. He looked down and had to focus on his phone for a moment to select and read the text. "That's when Ronnie suddenly walked in front of forklift, and I didn't see him until I heard him shout. The thought of anyone walking in front of my forklift was the furthest thing from my mind." What should have been one of the best days of his life ended up being one of the worst. Not only did Ramon lose his job for violating his company's rules on cell phone use, his actions caused the death of a friend and a co-worker.

Who Should Be Involved in Creating Workplace Safety Documents?
It's best to create a committee to draft a workplace safety document. The committee should consist of a majority of employees that are a part of the specific workplace and at least one supervisor. A safety specialist or other personnel who are familiar with safety procedures may be a good addition, as well.

Fact: Successful safety programs involve employees in decision-making and other safety-related activities as much as possible. This creates a feeling of ownership, buy-in, and can lead to an improved safety culture.

Creating Guidance for the Workplace Means Making it Practical
Some rules aren't a one-size-fits-all. Consider the organization and its work style diversity. Some departments or divisions or sections may have vastly different scopes of work.

Analogy: If some employees need a respirator to perform a part of their job safely, we wouldn't require those employees, or everyone in the organization, to wear a respirator all day. We would simply require the affected employees to wear the respirator, and only while performing the specified task.

Similarly, by administratively controlling mobile device usage during defined tasks and in defined locations/environments, the control will be more local, more applicable, and more than likely to receive more buy-in from employees, as well as being simpler to enforce.

Guideline or Policy? In a nutshell, a guideline is a document that "guides" a group, whether private or public, and is put in place to improve and simplify a practice or habit. It is a course of action. A policy is a set of rules that gives a specific map of action and is more mandatory in nature. It is the course of action.

Consider This: No Differentiation Between Work Use and Personal Use
It isn't the nature of the electronic use itself that is dangerous, it's the place and/or task that is going on simultaneously that poses a hazard. Rules pertaining to the safety of mobile device usage should be associated with tasks and environments and care little about the nature of the usage. Such differentiations can create a false sense of security from hazards.

Example: An employee in a chemical room is waiting for a text from his supervisor. The text comes in, and he takes out his phone and reads it. Later, he answers a call outside from another employee and suffers burns to his eyes from residual chemicals that were deposited on the phone earlier. Although the phone usage was all work-related, the initial usage happened in the wrong place.

Consider This: No differentiation Between Management and Employees
Managers and supervisors are just as susceptible to injury as their employees. Again, by developing safety policies for distracted working around task and environment, position and title shouldn't come into the equation. Doing so could lead to a false sense of security from workplace hazards based on rank or position.

Suggestion: Create safe zones in operational environments where vendors, workers and managers can make company phone calls. One way to accomplish this is color-coded painted areas on the floor.

Electronic devices such as cell phones are powerful tools for sending and receiving valuable information. When used appropriately they add value to our lives, but when used inappropriately they can create workplace hazards that may not otherwise exist.

Create a set of policies, rules, procedures, or guidelines that really work for employees. Keep it simple. Consider how it will affect leadership; will my manager be able to follow these rules? Give an opportunity for employees to be accountable for their own safety by having ownership, buy-in, and opportunities to follow the rules that are set out.

A simple document should include the following information:
1. What. Define the action (use of electronic devices or other distractions) that will be prohibited in the following circumstances.
2. Who. Define the group of people or positions who perform a certain task, regardless of location.
3. When. Define the "while." This connects the action to the activity.
4. Where. Define the environments where the action is prohibited, regardless of task, including walking or standing in the area.

Jennifer Hill is the current Occupational Safety Administrator at the City of Tallahassee, Fla., where she has been employed for 14 years. Her background includes six years as a Journeyman Power Plant Chemist and 12 years as a licensed Florida Water Well Contractor. She received and maintains Authorized OSHA General Industry Outreach Trainer status through OTI, Georgia Tech. She has a Master of Science degree in Environmental Science from Florida A&M and a Bachelor of Arts & Sciences from Florida State University. Via the City of Tallahassee, she is a member of the Florida Municipal Association of Safety and Health (FMASH) and North Florida Safety Council.

Posted by Jennifer Hill on Oct 01, 2014

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