Safety In the Digital Age (part 2)

By Phil La Duke

Yesterday I published part 1 of the speech I will deliver at the National Safety Council (9:15-!0:45 at the McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago) Here is part two. But don’t let that stop you from coming to the speech.

Workers can just as easily be distracted by radios, bar code readers, a good book, or a cup of coffee, what’s more, distracted pedestrians are increasingly the victims of injuries because of their distractions.

Defining Distracting Devices

Crafting a reasonably specific definition of exactly what constitutes a distracting device is tricky.  The temptation is to define a distracting device as “any thing that substantially interferes with an individual’s ability to focus on his or her job”. While this definition certainly nails it from a definition standpoint it really isn’t practical.  Under this definition anything from  a yoyo to a portable gaming system, and while that is great from a ease of enforcement standpoint it really doesn’t provide guidance that the workers can use to work safer.

There’s another problem in focusing on the device—no matter how comprehensive the list of distracting devices you create, additional device enter the workplace so rapidly that an all encompassing list is impossible to create and keep current.

In fact, there is little practical purpose in creating a “distracting devices list” and companies should focus on defining the dangers posed by the irresponsible use of devices, not the devices themselves. It’s important to remember that no device is intrinsically distracting and the dangers come from the myth of multi-tasking.  As I previously noted, multitasking is impossible but beyond the limitation of the brain to focus on one (and only one) task at a time without a serious degradation in the quality of the tasks performed, there is the loss of situational awareness., that is, the  ability of one to sense dangers around oneself.  So if you are walking the streets of Chicago with headphones on and your attention focused on your smart device you are far more likely to walk into a hard-hat area without the right gear, jaywalk in front of on-coming traffic (according to a public service billboard on the streets of Chicago, 3000 pedestrians are killed in Chicago a year—a number of which I am dubious, but to lazy to check out), trip on uneven concrete, or bump into another pedestrian.  These aren’t hypothetical examples, rather all are things that I witnessed in the first two days of my trip to Chicago.  It’s pretty easy to see the danger of becoming so absorbed in one activity that you are oblivious to other, potentially lethal dangers, but the danger doesn’t end there.  People who are distracted (which is really just hyper-focused on an activity) are 50% more likely to miss unexpected hazards.  So forget trying to regulate devices and focus on guidelines for reducing activities while distracted.

Considerations for Regulating Distractive Devices

The two must dangerous activities for which a person to be distracting while performing are walking and driving.  The fact that these two activities intersect so frequently makes it essential that any distraction policy address these two activities.  Some of the best policies I have seen have centered on the activity.  If you are driving or walking you cannot do the following while in motion or the vehicle is in gear:

  • Talk on the telephone (including while using Bluetooth devices)
  • Read or send email or text messages (including using text to talk)
  • Use mobile apps (including apps that provide directions)


Clearly outline the boundaries

Some companies exempt GPSs from the list of banned  activities while driving, and from my standpoint I can understand why.  Is it more dangerous to print out directions and read them while driving than to listen to them on a hands-free system?  Interestingly, no; the device-based distraction is far more dangerous—cases abound where people have driven off bridges, turned onto railroad tracks into the path of freight trains and other ridiculous and dangers things simply because a synthesized voice told them to do so.


Rethink your expectations for connectivity and responsiveness

One primary consideration companies must make when regulating distracted behavior is the effect these restrictions will have on worker responsiveness.  Many organizations will talk about the need for safety, but when the choice between workers not answering phones  or emails while driving and behaving safely the organization refuses to acknowledge the mutually exclusive nature of the situation.  Organizations can’t have their cake and eat it too.  If we restrict ancillary activities while walking or driving we must be prepared to accept a significant drop in productivity and responsiveness.

Allow for judgment in extraordinary circumstances

There are exceptions to every rule, and whatever policy you craft should clearly outline the extraordinary situations where it is advisable to violate the rule. If for example a worker is running for his life because of an attack or catastrophe we wouldn’t expect him or her to wait until they found a safe place to stop and phone for help, or maybe you would, but in either case you need to think about what cases you would allow noncompliance 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 in put from those effected to see if they can identify greater risks in not engaging in the activity than in doing it.