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Distracted drivers to distracted workers: Tips for developing workplace cellphone policy

By Mari-Len De Guzman

VANCOUVER — Cellphones are not only a safety distraction for drivers, they also pose a safety hazard at high-risk industrial workplaces, according to one safety expert.

The pervasiveness of mobile communication devices has introduced new hazards in the workplace that did not really exist 20 years ago, said Kevin Hayes, corporate safety manager for the Canadian operations of Acciona Infrastructure, a construction and engineering firm headquartered in Madrid, Spain.

Hayes spoke at a session on distracted workers at the Western Conference on Safety this week.

There are more cellular phone subscribers in the world today than landline phone subscribers, said Hayes. People are communicating in real-time and, unfortunately, with this need to communicate instantly, new hazards are being created.

One in four vehicle crashes involve someone using a cellphone while driving, said Hayes. This phenomenon has led governments to prohibit use of handheld devices while driving.

“Researchers have found that the human brain really doesn’t multitask — the cognitive demanding task it cannot do at the same time,” said Hayes.

He points out the distractions of cellphone use are not limited to driving, but are also vital to the safety of workers, particularly in high-risk areas like a construction site.

And Hayes knows this for a fact.

Almost five years ago, Hayes was tasked to investigate a fatality at one of his company’s construction projects. A road worker was hit and killed by a dump truck. The investigation found cellphone use was a huge factor that led to the fatal accident.

Since then, Hayes’s company has enforced a cellphone use policy that prescribes acceptable and unacceptable use of the cellphone while at work. In particular, Hayes said, workers are prohibited from using their cellphones while performing safety-sensitive tasks, like operating heavy equipment.

“My company recognizes the fact that people have to communicate,” said Hayes, adding that a workplace cellphone use policy should indicate what is acceptable and unacceptable use of cellphones at work.

While stressing that every workplace is different, Hayes shared some of the key elements for a successful cellphone use policy in the workplace.

“First of all, you need buy-in from upper management. They’re the ones who will support you through this project,” he said, stressing that a cellphone use policy does not get implemented overnight, but requires time. “It’s a two-year, not a two-minute project.”

Research and recognize. Present a good case to the company by researching other cellphone use policies at other organizations, particularly those that belong to the same industry. Acknowledge that cellphones are a fact of life now, so rather than implementing a total ban, consider reasonable guidelines to establish proper use of cellphones at work.

Put it in writing. Start with a written cellphone policy that workers have to sign. A written policy establishes due diligence on the part of the employers. “A written policy is easier to enforce than one that’s understood but not actually written down,” Hayes said.

Purpose. Highlight the fact the policy is not just for the benefit of the employer, but also to prevent worker distraction that could endanger them and their coworkers. Set the rules for acceptable and unacceptable cellphone use. For example, it’s not acceptable to use a cellphone or other handheld devices when operating a moving vehicle or heavy equipment.

Application. The cellphone use policy must apply to all company personnel, including management and third-party contractors working on the employer’s site. Define the types of devices the policy applies to, i.e. cellphone, two-way radios, GPS and other portable devices.

Prohibition. Outline specific tasks or areas where the use of mobile devices is prohibited. As well, outline areas where mobile device is permitted.

Violation. State the consequences and disciplinary measures for violation of the policy.  

Spread the word. Do what’s necessary to effectively communicate the policy across the organization to ensure that every worker knows and understand the policy. The information could be disseminated through e-mails, notes on pay envelopes, safety plans, safety orientations, safety talks, stickers on mobile equipment, signs and bulletin boards.

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