Are your workers carrying one of the biggest safety risks onto the jobsite?
If they are walking around with cell phones in their pockets, the answer is yes.
In the 14 years since the first smartphone was released, cell phones have increasingly become central to how we live. They guide us, connect us, entertain us, and inform us.
But the pervasiveness of smartphones is not without drawbacks. That is especially clear on worksites with complex projects, heavy machinery, or vehicles of any kind.
Driven to Distraction
The term “distracted driving” has become commonplace, and so have occurrences of dangerous conduct behind the wheel. We have all seen distracted driving play out on the road, like the guy watching a movie on his phone and drifting into the wrong lane, or the teen who is texting and misses a stop sign.
Here is the problem. We think we are good at multi-tasking, but we are not.
- Michigan State University conducted a study that explored the impact of interruptions. They found that interruptions of three seconds doubled the error rate of a task, and interruptions that lasted just a couple seconds longer tripled the error rate.1
- Interruptions also kill momentum and the flow of work. Another study done by UC Irvine found it can take over 23 minutes to fully reengage with a task after an interruption.2
On the worksite, cell phones are portable interruptions.
Workers get news updates, calls from spouses, weather alerts, low battery warnings, and other micro-interruptions throughout the day. The result is decreased productivity and increased risk for error.
The Human Performance Improvement Handbook was created by the Department of Energy (DOE) as a reference for anyone who wants to learn more about human performance and how it can be improved. Here is what they said about multitasking and interruptions:
“The likelihood of error is enhanced when someone attempts to do more than one activity in one stage of information processing (sensing, thinking, acting), such as listening to the radio and a passenger simultaneously while driving an automobile. This is why it is so important to control the environment in which people work by minimizing interruptions and distractions or other stimuli that can negatively affect a performer’s attention capabilities.”
Management is responsible for the safety of workers.
That includes having a sound approach to cell phone usage.
Other than a rule specific to crane or derrick operators, The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has not developed regulations specific to cell phone use, but the General Duty Clause applies:
Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees’ employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.
What are managers to do?
Going back to the Human Performance Improvement Handbook, the answer is to remove error precursors. Error precursors “exist before the error occurs” and “interfere with successful performance and increase the probability for error.” If error precursors are mitigated or removed, safety can be improved.
Are you controlling the work environmental and looking after the safety of your team by limiting distractions? Are they set up to be mindful and situationally aware?
Here are some steps to consider:
- Have a clear cell phone usage policy
Whether that means banning cell phones altogether or limiting their use to certain areas and times, like at lunch or in the break room, management needs to make a decision about how to protect workers and limit liability, and then the policy needs to be clearly communicated and consistently enforced.
- Consider the role of paper
Transition work to paper, rather than cell phone, when it makes sense.
- Set up kiosks for focused work
Set up in a safe location, kiosks can be an effective solution. Information can be easily input and is immediately available to the boss.
- Leverage observations to reinforce positive behaviors
How can you engage your workers to adhere to a safe cell phone policy?
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- MSU Today. Brief Interruptions Spawn Errors. https://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2013/brief-interruptions-spawn-errors. Accessed: July 27, 2021.
- Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2015/06/01/interruptions-at-work-can-cost-you-up-to-6-hours-a-day-heres-how-to-avoid-them/. Accessed: July 27, 2021
- Human Performance Improvement Handbook, Volume 1. Department of Energy. https://www.standards.doe.gov/standards-documents/1000/1028-BHdbk-2009-v1/@@images/file. Accessed: July 27, 2021.