Phil La Duke's Blog

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Freeze! Should You Restrict Smart Device I The Workplace?


By Phil La Duke

laptop driverThe ubiquity of smart devise and myriad ways to stay in touch has blurred the lines between the traditional workplace and the rest of our lives.  There was a time when there was no expectation that workers would respond to requests when they weren’t “on-the-clock”. But email, voicemail, cellphones, Wi-Fi, and texting have changed all that.  The concept, at least for salaried professionals, of being on the clock has effectively disappeared. Customers—internal and external—and supervisors have a much more aggressive idea of exactly what constitutes a reasonable response time.  Professionals are essentially on the clock 24/7 and the workplace can be a restaurant, the grocery store, and most perilously the car.

As my hometown, Detroit, prepares for its international auto show, the media is abuzz with all the new features that will make it easier to conduct business in a car or truck.  In one news spot, a spokesman extolled the features that “could make the difference of a contractor getting the job or not”.

I find this trend troubling; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one of the most consistently lethal professions (the jobs that are most likely to result in a worker death) are sales jobs, and the most frequent sales death are resultant from traffic accidents.

You Might As Well Be Stoned

To make matters worse, studies have found and reaffirmed that the nature of the distraction is largely irrelevant, and that the nature and duration of the distraction is the real source of danger.  One study found that the largest and potentially most dangerous source of danger was a conversation with a passenger. Another study concluded that driver distraction was at least as dangerous as a driver that is moderately (well above the legal limit) intoxicated and in some cases even MORE dangerous.  This makes sense; while the impairment comparable may the degree to which drunk driving interact with other drivers is statistically less (the later in the evening the more intoxicated drivers on the road) than otherwise distracted drivers (people are texting, talking on cellphones, etc.) who do so in both high traffic circumstances as well as when traffic is light. Driver distraction is a real threat to public safety, and I find it unreasonable to believe that adding everything from Wi-Fi to waffle irons to vehicles will lesson driver distraction.

Laws Aren’t Enough

An increasing number of municipalities are moving to restrict distractions while driving, but most miss the mark.  Exemptions for hands-free and global positioning systems in many of these laws ignore the fact that the primary hazard is the lack of attentiveness of the driver not merely taking one’s eyes off the road. Keeping one’s EYES on the road but failing to keep one’s MIND on the road is a recipe for disaster.

Similarly, many organizations are taking increasingly aggressive measures to mitigate the risk associated with distracted drivers, and they should.  Think of the liability associated with an employee who is conducting company business—from a simple business phone call, to reading and responding to email—who subsequently is at fault in a fatal car accident.  Most companies have existing CYA (cover your assets) policies forbidding such activities, but if there is a policy with complicit breaches (and by that I mean, a case where company forbids an activity but then encourages it by rewarding results that are only possible by violating the rules or punishing people when for failing to achieve results that are only possible when people violate the rules) these policies aren’t like to provide much protection.

Staying Connected Is Killing Us

The temptation to stay connected is often far greater than the desire to comply with company policy and both employer and employee have a shared burden for ensuring that the spirit of the requirement is met.

First, companies should adopt zero-movement policies for smart device and phones.  One company adopted such a policy when a forklift killed a worker while he was talking on a cellphone and walking through an area that was off limits to pedestrians.  The distraction of the pedestrian was the proximate cause of the fatality, although other factors contributed to his fate, the company quickly enacted a policy where people were not allowed to be in motion while talking on cellphones, reading mail from a smart device, or engaged in any activity that would distract one from hazards in the workplace.

Taking It A Step Further

While this policy is laudable, I think we can do better.  Companies need to use a parallel strategy to attack his problem. First, ban communication devices from the vehicles.  Drivers and pedestrians should be prohibited from using any electronic communication while in motion, including hands-free devices. I have taken to stowing my iPhone in my center console while driving.  (I got this idea from a top safety professional that admitted that he struggled with the temptation of using his PDA during his commute. Although I didn’t adopted it until I was pulled over for monkeying about with my phone while driving.) Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, organizations must recognize that travel time is, in and of itself, work and no more should be expected of the individual while driving. This means the company has to adjust its expectations of responsiveness and recognize that individuals will not be able to maintain constant contact.

What About Emergencies?

Such policies invite excuses and “what ifs?”  Chief among these complaints is the objection in the name of safety.  If I comply and there is an emergency I can’t communicate and be touched.  The answer is that a cellphone in the glove box can be used after the driver is safely parked.

But Is It Practical?

I don’t like the idea of not using my cellphone for the 90 minutes a day that I commute, and I recognize that many of you may see this policy as one of those “safety guy goes overboard with overly zealous rules”, but there are an increasing number business leaders who are recognizing that this problem is not going to go away without intervention.

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