Workplace Culture

Are Your Employees Dangerously ‘Intexticated’

By Teresa Long

Oct. 16, 2009

Personal technology—predominantly in the form of cell phones, BlackBerrys and iPods—now infiltrates work life as well as leisure time. These devices are affecting job safety, and that not-so-good vibration is being felt, sometimes literally, from coast to coast. For example:

In May, a Boston trolley driver got distracted while sending a text message and slammed into another trolley car, injuring scores of passengers. Even more horrific was the 2008 incident involving a Los Angeles commuter train that hit another train head on, resulting in the deaths of 25 people and the injury of 135 others. The train’s operator, who died in the crash, had reportedly sent or received 57 text messages while on the job that day, including one sent 22 seconds before the crash.

Research by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute revealed that a truck driver looking down while texting for a mere six seconds while motoring at 55 miles per hour will travel the entire length of a football field and not realize he traveled so far, so fast. No longer is it only intoxicated drivers who are dangerous; it is these “intexticated” drivers as well.

The Harvard Center of Risk Analysis estimates that cell phone activity contributes to 636,000 motor vehicle crashes, 330,000 injuries and 2,600 fatalities each year. Although it’s hard to put a number on how many of those are on-the-job incidents involving workers such as truck drivers, delivery drivers or salespeople on their way to their next meeting, it is safe to say employers need to be aware of potential ramifications.

Some businesses have already noted the number of injuries and rising costs associated with workplace distractions and responded by adopting policies that ban the use of cell phones. These employers understand the potential liability connected with driving and talking or texting. All you have to do is look back a few years to a company that had to settle a case for $16 million because one of its salespeople, driving as he talked on a cell phone, struck and severely injured an elderly driver.

Unfortunately, there are still employers who fail to recognize the urgency of the matter. Many believe salespeople on the road or local delivery drivers can’t do their jobs fast enough unless they are multitasking.

But it’s time for them to wake up and smell the risk. Most assuredly, their insurance companies and their underwriters are standing downwind, and it’s only a matter of time before they start sniffing around to see if employers have language in place prohibiting the use of cell phones while driving.

Several politicians and the American Transportation Association have already introduced legislation aimed at banning texting while operating a vehicle. The Avoiding Life-Endangering and Reckless Texting by Drivers Act of 2009 would penalize states by withholding 25 percent of their annual federal highway funding if they do not enact laws prohibiting drivers from sending or receiving text messages while operating motor vehicles.

It’s not just the inappropriate use of cell phones that’s causing risk. It’s also injuries to workers who stop hearing the outside world because they’re listening to iPods or other music players while on the job. It happens when an employee is listening to Abba instead of a listening to a co-worker who is yelling out a warning. It happens when a worker can’t hear the beep-beep-beep of a forklift backing up.

One aerospace manufacturer took a proactive approach recently by banning 1,500 of its employees from using iPods at work, stating, “Even though there have been no incidents, there are aircraft, forklifts, trucks and so on moving around. We feel people should always be concentrating fully.”

Companies’ human resources departments need to know the ramifications of the new technology in the workplace. They should put specific policy language into the employee handbook, properly train employees and vigorously enforce those policies. By doing so, companies can protect themselves from liability by showing that the employee knowingly violated a written safety rule.

Companies need to realize that there is another risk to them if a distracted employee is the one who is injured in a tech-induced accident. Adding insult to the injury, it is very likely that the employee will file a workers’ compensation claim.

Unsafe acts cause more workplace accidents than do unsafe conditions. So employers and employees need to work together to ensure that an electronic-device policy is enforced in a way that shows each understands the importance of keeping the public and co-workers safe by being able to respond instantly to a workplace situation, whether it’s a pedestrian crossing a street or a truck backing up to a loading dock.

It’s true that you can’t idiot-proof the world. But by putting the proper policy into place you can protect your little piece of the world, such as your workplace, and any members of the public who come into contact with your company or its employees.

Nothing drives home this point better than the story of a 25-year-old truck driver from upstate New York who was talking on a cell phone with one hand and texting with the other. As you would expect, he came up one hand short and lost control of his vehicle, smashed into another car, careened across a front lawn and plunged his truck into a swimming pool, injuring a 68-year-old woman and her 8-year-old niece in the process.

We can only hope that the company he worked for had the foresight to have an up-to-date policy on the do’s and don’ts of the new technology in the workplace. We can also only hope that the company had training and policy enforcement. As recent cases have shown, just talking about the dangers of intextication is not enough.

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