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Safety in the Digital Age: Regulating Worker Use of Distracting Devices

The dangers of distraction while working have garnered a great deal of attention. Distraction increases the risk of injury, but taking the appropriate steps to reduce distraction are neither easy nor simple. Much thought must be given to the consequences, fairness, and practicality of any regulations aimed at reducing the risks associated with worker distraction.

Posted: January 23, 2014

Because time is increasingly money, the rapid transfer of information from individuals in the field to key decision makers directly correlates to increased productivity and profitability. Reacting to distracting devices with a knee-jerk, one-size-fits-all regulation not only hamstrings innovation and continual improvement efforts, it also reinforces the image of the safety professional as the out-of-touch theorist, self-righteous obstructionist, or clueless goofball.
This simple diagram shows some of the potential outcomes of an out-and-out ban on smart devices while driving. This is just an example, but it illustrates the usefulness of the device.  The “root” is the decision that has been made, in this example the decision to ban smart devices while driving.  The “stem” boxes represent potential outcomes (they need not be probable or likely, just possible) and the “branch” boxes represent the outcomes of the stems.

Here is an important emerging issue: the regulation of employees that use distracting devices. Restricting the use of certain mobile technology in the workplace isn’t quite as simple as it seems at first blush, but it needs to be done. According to the International Data Corporation (Framingham, MA), there are now over one billion smart devices in use, a number projected to rise above two billion by 2016 – an extremely high number of devices given the total world population.

Distraction is a key contributor to human error and can impair judgment to an extent comparable to alcohol. Distracted drivers are in an increasing number of traffic accidents. While most people are aware of the dangers of distracting devices, fewer recognize the dangers of merely walking while listening to music, checking email, or simply being distracted.

Furthermore, serious injuries and fatalities caused by being “struck by or against” something has been increasing and is likely to be an enforcement priority by OSHA. This adds to the already serious threat posed by slip, trip and fall injuries. In other words, unrestricted use of distracting devices represents a significant risk to worker safety.

Banning distracting devices is the kind of knee-jerk reaction we’ve come to know and love from safety professionals, but it isn’t feasible or even advisable. Thousands of useful apps are now available for tablets and phones that increase workplace productivity and even safety. And these aren’t the only distracting devices, because workers can be just as easily distracted by radios, bar code readers, or practically any portable device, irrespective of its purpose.

Because time is increasingly money, the rapid transfer of information from individuals in the field to key decision makers directly correlates to increased productivity and profitability. Reacting to distracting devices with a knee-jerk, one-size-fits-all regulation not only hamstrings innovation and continual improvement efforts, it also reinforces the image of the safety professional as the out-of-touch theorist, self-righteous obstructionist, or clueless goofball.

The benefits of these devices are real, but so too are the dangers their use poses. “The human toll is tragic,” notes David Michaels, PhD, MPH, the assistant secretary for occupational safety and health at the U.S. Department of Labor. “DOT reports that in 2009, more than 5,400 people died in crashes linked to distraction and thousands more were injured. Texting while driving has become such a prominent hazard that 30 states now ban text messaging for all drivers.”

Michaels acknowledges the advantages of new and useful technology, but questions the value proposition associated with the use of these devices while driving. “There’s no question that new communications technologies are helping business work smarter and faster,” he says. “But getting work done faster does not justify the dramatically increased risk of injury and death that comes with texting while driving.”

While Michaels is certainly correct in condemning texting while driving, this practice is only the latest and most widely publicized dangers of distracting devices. Texting is not the only distracting device-based activity that happens while driving. Commercial drivers routinely use laptop computers, tablets, global positioning systems, music players (from the in-dash radio to elaborate sound systems and accessories) and a host of emerging devices while driving.

Studies confirm that distraction from devices is significantly more dangerous than distractions from eating in the car or having a conversation with a passenger. Over 95 percent of communication between two people is nonverbal and takes less brain power to process than a conversation between two people via a phone or radio.

A growing number of fatalities are arising from distracted pedestrians who are so absorbed in the use of a distracting device they become afflicted with inattention blindness, i.e., they miss unusual events like a forklift barreling down on them or a delivery truck rounding a corner and step into the path of certain death. While the primary concern of OSHA has been distracted drivers, the rise is pedestrian deaths is sure to shift this dynamic, and change is likely to come sooner than later.

Arguments for banning are clear and make a lot of sense. Their distraction can be dangerous, but so are a lot of things that we judge to be worth the risk. There is consensus that many driving and traffic-related accidents – which rank as a leading cause of workplace fatalities – could have been prevented by less distraction of drivers.

Employee Liability versus Corporate Liability
Apart from the obvious risk of a worker death, companies are growing concerned of the tricky liability associated with driver distraction. Will a company with no policy banning distracting devices be judged as culpable if one of their employees kills someone while driving while distracted? The law increasingly views policies that are widely disregarded, or simply on the books with no expectation of compliance, as akin to no policy at all. Simply put, having a vague, all-inclusive “thou shalt not . . .” policy may not safeguard your organization from liability.

The Invisible Gorilla
In their book The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons recount their findings from the seminal “Invisible Gorilla” study where they produced a video tape of two teams playing basketball, one team wearing white shirts and the other wearing black. Subjects were told to concentrate only on the players wearing white shirts, ignore the players wearing black shirts, and count the passes the white team made. In the middle of the video, a student wearing a full gorilla suit enters the play, walks in front of the camera, thumps her chest and leaves.

The gorilla was on screen over nine seconds, yet 50 percent of the test subjects failed to see it. This study has been validated and replicated many times, with profound implications for the safety of a distracted workforce that conclude that most people are likely to miss unexpected events when they are concentrating on another task. To see a shorten demo of the video in the experiment click here.

Slip, Trip & Fall and Struck By/Against Injuries
Injuries caused by slips, trips, falls and struck by/against are rising, with a strong correllation between being distracted and being injured (or injurying another). How often have you investigated an injury only to have the injured party shrug and say, “I just wasn’t thinking?” In effect, the injured party is saying that they were distracted by thinking about something else. This isn’t the occasion for blaming or judging. The fact is, human beings have a relatively short attention span and distraction often plays a role in worker injuries.

  • Jim Leemann wrote:

    Couldn’t agree with you more Phil. Nice piece.

    • Phil La Duke wrote:

      Thanks Jim. This topic generated surprisingly little support in the LinkedIn forums where I posted a link. In fact, one gentleman called the entire attempt to regulate distracting devices “a knee jerk reaction typical of the safety community.” I guess one man’s proactive intervention is another man’s knee jerk reaction.

  • Andrew Finch wrote:

    Excellent article. I am in the throes of trying to put together a company wide Car/Van Use Policy and this is one of the big issues that is surprisingly difficult to cover succinctly but at the same time comprehensively.

    • Phil La Duke wrote:


      Thanks for reading and commenting. My advice is to regulate as few things in your policy as possible. I’ve found the fewer the restrictions the greater the compliance. Good luck.

  • Orlando Valls wrote:

    This is a behavior issue and one that points to the leadership in the field to help eliminate this behavior. No one knows their crew members like a supervisor. He/she is well aware of the crew member who may have concerns about staying in touch with family, etc. This takes planning and addressing the concern right away, not waiting till the worker is caught in the act. Some rules that work are simple and common sense, such as “No Cell Phones Allowed”. Just like another problem of concern and controversy: smoking. Now we see entire facilities that prohibit this to occur without any backlash. It takes aggressive actions to identify and correct this type behavior, which all starts with education and selection of supervision.

    • Phil La Duke wrote:

      Thanks for reading and commenting. My comment has a firm, no cellphone use while driving and it is taken very seriously. In many respects companies get the behaviors with which they put up. And if the company turns a blind eye to someone violating a policy, then it really isn’t a policy for all intents and purposes.

  • Freddie Fox wrote:

    Good day,
    This is a great article and will makes my job of getting the message across to managers easier as we are in the process of implementing a “No walk and Talk” Policy in our organisation. For a number of years SA law has banned the use of hand held devices in motor vehicles, but all to often one sees people talking and even texting as they drive along, we have gone so far as to ban hand free kits in company vehicles as we still see this as a big distraction, if you need to talk on your cell STOP in a safe spot, it’s as simple as that. Once again thanks for sharing this with us and may I disseminate it among my colleges.

    • Phil La Duke wrote:


      Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Many people find the draw of immediate communication irrestible and banning their use outright is sure to invite violations. Instead, as you suggest, we need to provide guidance as to where it IS acceptable to use the devices.

  • Allan Fetherston wrote:

    I liked reading your article and agree. I worked with a company that had a first day apprentice who had no training. He was instructed to drill a hole in a box, simple task but now training, he drilled a hole in the box and the bit continued and into his hand. No one taught him not to hold the box while drilling. If this was not bad enough, an incident review was gone through and was decided that the apprentice needed training. So the next day, supposedly after training, the apprentice did it again. Now the company, in it’s infinite wisdom, decided that “drill bits are dangerous so we will ban them from our projects” (drill bits longer than 2 in). Talk about knee jerk reactions. My point is in this new age we are living in our training is lacking severely those of us who have been around and have so much to share on how to do our jobs safely are not allowed to help instruct new people coming into our fields how to be safe.
    Distractions have been in the work place since “work” began. It is amazing how radios have such a negative aura about them when in fact music has been proven to improve production. I did a project a few years back and was allowed to let my crews use radios, in 9 weeks a two million dollar profit was recorded. Women on construction projects are famous for being a distraction, now women are working in the construction industry.
    I believe that we simply need training on how to adapt to distracting circumstances.
    Proud to state that after over 40 years in leadership, only 1 recordable incident. But who listens to success?

    • Phil La Duke wrote:

      Thanks for reading and commenting. “But who listens to success?” I do for one, and congratulations on that outstanding achievement. Your point about training is well taken, I believe that people who are trained to a mastery-level skill of there jobs are safer workers than those who have little to no training, or whose training is outdated, poorly designed, inappropriate to their jobs, or otherwise inadequate. Unfortunately, like the Safety function the Training function is a relatively young function and many companies still make a poor show of it.

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