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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: October 9, 2014

There are many good reasons for crafting policies for reducing distraction but, in the end, workers must exercise significant self-discipline in maintaining the appropriate levels of focus. As with any regulation, restrictions placed on distraction can have unintended consequences and may even lead to greater risk. 
This simple backward fishbone 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 aps 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.”

Michael 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 shortened 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 correallation 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 occaision for blaming or judging. The fact is, human beings have a relatively short attention span and distraction often plays a role in worker injuries.

May Act As A Catalyst For Other Injuries
Another by-product of distraction is human error (undeliberate, inadvertant actions with undesirable outcomes).  Studies show that distraction significantly increases the chances of committing a human error. In his book, Whack-a-Mole: The Price We Pay for Expecting Perfection, David Marx identifies what he calls “performance shaping behaviors,” or factors that tend to increase people’s tendency to make a human error. These include distraction. Clearly, to protect workers we msut reduce distraction overall, and distracting devices specifically.

The Myth Of Multitasking
Chabris and Simons have shown how the more incompetent a person tends to be, the more mistakenly confident they are in their abilities. Studies show that the higher the competency a person has, the greater the tendency for them to rank their skills lower than they actually are. It is no coincidence that the most widely over estimated skill is one’s ability to “multitask.”

Multitasking grew in popularity during the 1980s as people were pushed to do “more with less.” Individuals who appeared to be expert multitaskers were extolled for their prowess in business. The only problem is that, neurologically speaking, multitasking is a myth. The human brain is incapable of multitasking. Those who appear to possess superior multitasking abilities are in fact just people with strong short-term memory. The ability to quickly resume what was previously abandoned creates an illusion of multitasking, but it is just that: illusion.

Crafting a reasonably specific definition of what constitutes a distracting device is tricky. Attempting to define a distracting device as “anything that substantially interferes with an individual’s ability to focus on his or her job” isn’t practical, because no matter how comprehensive the list is of distracting devices, additional devices now enter the workplace so rapidly that an all-encompassing list is impossible to create and maintain. No device is intrinsically distracting. The dangers come from the myth of multitasking. So companies should instead focus on defining the dangers posed by the irresponsible use of devices, not the devices themselves.

The two riskiest activities for a distracted person are walking and driving, two activities that intersect so frequently it is essential that any distraction policy address them. Some of the best policies center on activity. For example, when driving or walking, the following are not allowed while in motion or the vehicle is in gear:

  • Talking on the telephone (including Bluetooth devices)
  • Reading or sending email or text messages
  • Using any mobile apps

Clearly Outline the Boundaries
In a recent study, one company found that over 70 percent of their employees admitted to violating the no cell phone use while driving. In this case and others like it, can a company really defend its policy as viable? If less than 30 percent of your workforce follows a policy, that policy must be overhauled. Compliance is not likely to increase simply because of the threat of greater disciplinary action.

Rethink Your Expectations For Connectivity and Responsiveness
One primary consideration in regulating distracted behavior is the effect restrictions will have on worker responsiveness. Many organizations talk about the need for safety, but when workers make the choice between behaving safely and not answering phones or emails while driving, the organization refuses to acknowledge the mutually exclusive nature of the situation. Restrictions on ancillary activities while walking or driving requires preparation for a significant drop in productivity and responsiveness.

Without recalibration of expectations for connectivity and responsiveness – that is, if work norms are not adjusted to allow for slower communication and significantly reduced responsiveness –the noncompliance will likely be driven underground. It is extremely difficult to force compliance among people who have little or no supervision or oversight of their day-to-day activity. An employee driving alone has very little oversight; compliance becomes almost exclusively voluntary.

Unless tragedy strikes or the individual is ticketed, it is highly likely that any noncompliance will go unnoticed and unaddressed. Emails awaiting a response, phone calls, text messages, or potentially urgent voicemails provide compelling incentives for employees to violate the policy. Unless a more compelling reason is created that is relative to response time, workers will cheat and you have abetted their violations.

Allow for Judgement In Extraordinary Circumstances
Whatever policy is crafted should clearly outline any extraordinary situations where it is advisable to actually violate the rule. If, for example, a worker is running for his life because of an attack or catastrophic event, they shouldn’t be expected to wait, find a safe place to stop and phone for help. Or maybe they should. In either case, clearly outline cases where noncompliance is allowed and make those clear.

Balance the Greater Danger(s)
As with any regulation, restrictions you place on distraction can have unintended consequences and may even lead to greater risk. Before implementing your policy, seek input from those affected to see if they can identify greater risks in not engaging in the activity than in doing it. I like to use the backward fishbone diagram that starts with a decision and tracks the potential outcomes (see Figure 1).

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.

Our example demonstrates three layers, but depending on the complexity of the root you could continue to branch out several or even many more levels. To get the best results, involve several stakeholders and employ the rules of brainstorming. The point of using this tool is to visually identify as many potential consequences of your policy as possible.

There are many good reasons for crafting policies for reducing distraction but, in the end, workers must exercise significant self-discipline in maintaining the appropriate levels of focus.

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