Phil La Duke's Blog

Fresh perspectives on safety and Performance Improvement

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.

Filed under: Phil La Duke, Safety, Safety Culture, , , , , ,

Dying To Make a Living


Sarah Burke (Riccardo S Savi/Getty Images)

The sports world is reeling from the news of the death of Canadian skier Sarah Burke who died nine days after crashing during training t the bottom of the superpipe at the Park City Mountain resort in Utah. In this case, like so many others, many of on some level don’t see this as a workplace safety issue, and while acknowledging the tragedy openly question if the assumption of risk somehow eases the loss somehow. It’s odd how we can compartmentalize our thinking on worker safety. Sarah Burke died at work, just as surely as the tradesman who didn’t lock out, the construction worker who fell to his death, or the warehouse worker who is killed by falling stock. That Sarah Burke was working when she died is of little doubt, but should we have a different standard for professional athletes, and if we do, where is the line between workers who have a reasonable expectation to come home safe and those that we as a society decide have an assumption of risk to the degree that their deaths should not come as any big shock.

Certainly we expect football (both U.S. and the rest of the world) rugby, and hockey players to get injured. We deride some as “injury-prone” and others as wimps despite the shear physical nature of having 250 pounds of muscle blindsiding an unsuspecting player as it slams into him from behind. We expect and plan for injuries and meet career ending injuries with a sort of distracted indifference.

Fatalities are different. Sports fatalities stop and make us think. Not enough to do anything about it though. When Dale Earnhardt died at Daytona few, if any called for an end to the sport, and sport fans often complain when safety measures aimed at reducing fatalities are implemented. Fans love the fact that sports figures risk death every day; they celebrate sports figures as heroes. There is a certain absurdity in calling for safety measures for people, by nature of their chosen profession, risk death every day.

People may be outraged at the cruelty of bullfighting, but I’ve never heard of anyone demanding better protective equipment for matadors (toreadors either for that matter). Somewhere deep in the human psyche there is a bloodthirstiness that makes us believe that some people deserve to get hurt because they choose a high risk career. They deserve to die because they were stupid enough to take the job. There is a prurient fascination with deadly jobs and the people who willingly do them.

A quick scan of the cable television listings reveals a cottage industry of shows that celebrate jobs so dangerous that only the foolhardy and the brave would ever do them. Dirtiest Jobs, Ice Road Truckers, Deadliest Catch and scores more are testament to our fascination with jobs that are more likely to get you killed than pay a pension. Even if we don’t actively root for these people to die we are titillated and absorbed by the possibility that the workers will be injured or even die. Is our fascination with, and acceptance of, intrinsically dangerous jobs so wrong? What of the idiom, “it’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it?” It’s not like we watching gladiators hack each other to pieces in an arena after all.

But there is something wrong here. Why are we so disconnected with the misery of the people who risk death for our entertainment? Few of the people we watch on these programs were born with a silver spoon in their mouths and were it not for the artificially high paychecks (in some cases) few would take the risk associated with the jobs they do. And, and apart from a handful of athletes, few of these people retire in what most would describe as luxury, despite the higher wages.

The most deadly jobs still go uncelebrated. The profession with the most fatalities doesn’t have its own cheaply produced reality television show. Sales people routinely die on the job at a disproportionate rate, and most years the profession produces more fatalities than the second place contenders. Most of these deaths are in auto accidents, and as much as safety professionals have tried to reduce traffic fatalities of their workers none has figured out a good way to protect sales professionals from a sea of other drivers who are texting, programming GPS systems, reading and sending emails, and talking on the phone.

Employers ask too much of today’s sales professional and it is literally killing them. The ubiquitous nature of smart devices have created a sense of universal contact and the expectation that even the most banal email will elicit an immediate response. We can’t even allow a salesperson time to think in the car; we are paying them and expect them to earn their keep, even while driving.

Here is all that remains of the three vehicles involved in an accident on that fateful road.

Several years ago I was hired to implement a worker safety process for a manufacturer in a fairly remote part of Mexico. I traveled to this area 15 times in just over a year. I flew into Monterey, and traversed the most dangerous road in the world as I made my way up the mountain to Saltillo. (The road was rife with banditos, guerillas, treacherous curves and turns through rockslide areas, and hazards upon hazards). Once in town I still had plenty of treacherous travel to reach my workplace. Traffic in town was madness and the plant where I was employed was about 45 minutes out of town in a high mountain dessert. The last 30 minutes or so I was completely of the grid and any breakdown or accident would likely be fatal. Avoiding death was a full time job. When, at the end of my workday, I would reenter the grid, my phone would convulse in a flurry of buzzes, bells and alarms. I would have scores of emails, voicemails and text messages a 30-minute drive through murderous traffic and bosses and customers who wanted immediate responses. Stopping along side of the road was potentially fatal so I worked from the car. Was doing so stupid? (reading and answering a text in that environment goes beyond stupid or reckless) you bet and I did my best to resist the temptation. I usually spent a good hour at the hotel responding to trivial crap that never would have entered my life before a person was required to type up a memo and circulate it via inter company mail. So why did I risk my life for one week a month for 15 months? It was my job, and somebody had to do it. I just found out that the plant at which I worked just put on a third shift and is continuing the work in safety that I helped them build. Was it worth risking my life? Given that I was summarily dismissed by the greedy, pig-eyed jackals that made the real money of the sweat of my back, probably not. But considering the great work I was able to do there and the many injuries I prevented and lives I perhaps saved, it just might have been. So before you send out that email demanding someone’s immediate attention, think. Maybe what your asking can wait a day or so, and just maybe it’s not a life and death matter after all.

Filed under: Phil La Duke, Safety, Worker Safety, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Unsafe At Any Speed (With Apologies to Ralph Nader)

Note: This is a reposting of a blog I wrote prior to putting the blog on hiatus.  Unfortunately, the original posts were lost and this is based on a back  up  Word document

We interrupt this blog to bring you a special rant by Phil La Duke …

There is a bill before the Michigan electorate that would ban texting while driving, and I’m against it. It’s not that I believe that driving while texting is a safe thing to do, or a wise thing to do, or a smart thing to do; I just don’t think we need another unenforced law on the books.

Several days ago while making my 40 minute commute home that traverses no fewer than five expressways I was barraged by drivers floating in and out of their lanes, tailgating, illegally changing lanes, speeding and in general driving like fool.  As I passed three different drivers who were impeding traffic by driving 50 mph in the passing lane I noticed that one was dialing on a cell phone, one was reading map quest directions, and one was elderly.  Since none of these drivers was texting, however, none would presumably be subject to penalty under the new law. (I haven’t read the bill, nor am I likely to, but I think it’s safe to say there are no “driving while elderly” provisions in it.)

Let’s be clear, I believe that driving while distracted represents a major threat to highway driving, and the National Safety Council has research to prove it.  But in a world where people routinely and cavalierly run yellow (if not red) lights, cross the double yellow line to illegally turn left, and speed with no fear of enforcement why should we have yet another law for texting.  What’s next a law forbidding us to make omelets while driving?

I once asked a police officer why he sat idly by while 3 people turned left after running a red light and he said that there was no point in writing tickets because the judges would just throw it out.  Interesting.  We stop enforcing the law because 1 in 10 (I’m guessing) would go to court and contest the charges, and another 1 in 10 would have the charges dismissed.  Meanwhile drivers violate the law with no fear of punishment; another law will not change that.

But many of you have seen pieces I’ve written that deride discipline as a means of making sustainable change, so if another law isn’t the answer, what is?  I think if we look at the root causes of this problem it is an issue of indoctrination and training.  My daughter took her driver’s ed course at our local public high school as I did at my local public high school twenty years prior.  It wasn’t a perfect system, but it was a good system Michigan has since privatized driver’s ed and it is no longer available through most public high schools.  Now instead of learning to drive from a public school teacher our young learn to drive from retail outlets that I seriously wouldn’t trust to sell me a lawn mower.

We need to shore up driver’s education requirements and maybe, instead of suspending licenses and gouging those drivers with poor records on insurance rates, we should require those poor drivers to retakc driver’s ed.  If we truly want to improve highway safety we need to do more than pass esoteric laws aimed at addressing the issue of the month.

Filed under: Phil La Duke, Safety, , , ,



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