How Distracted Workers Affect Productivity and Safety

Howard Mavity, Fisher and Phillips LLP

Several groups have waged a years-long campaign to restrict driver texting and other distractions. Hopefully, by now we are all aware that it makes little difference whether you use a hand-held or hands-free device. Indeed, a wide variety of tasks and technologies can affect you behind the wheel. Even listening to music can distract a driver, so we should not focus solely on hand-held phone usage and texting. But what if we apply the "distraction" analysis to determine why employees act in an unsafe fashion?

Although I have not yet fully researched the broader subject of "distracted workers," most of what I have read has focused on the enormous loss of productivity. For example, Fox Business recently reported the results of a survey that found "nearly 60 percent of work interruptions involve tools like e-mail, social media, text messaging and instant messaging, as well as switching windows among standalone tools and applications. The survey also found that 45 percent of employees work for only 15 minutes at a time or less without being interrupted, and 53 percent waste at least one hour a day due to various distractions."

In addition, the Canadian Occupational Safety Magazine article, "From Distracted Drivers to Distracted Workers," points out that the distractions of cell-phone use are not limited to driving but are also vital to the safety of workers, particularly in high-risk areas like a construction site.

So what are we doing about it? Some employers now ban cell phones from industrial and construction settings. I can understand this approach because I have handled more than one case where an employee took a cell call and then returned to his electrical work without putting his gloves back on. But what about work sites where the employees must use their phones to obtain guidance from the home office, to call emergency responders or to conduct online job safety analysis or use other safety apps?

More importantly, have we broadened our focus from vehicle operation and from cell phones? Where else is distraction contributing to injuries? In this age of multi-tasking, we already know that we are losing concentration and analytical ability in part due to our "labor-saving" devices, but are we also creating more safety hazards?

It seems to me that a first step is to increasingly introduce the broader topic of distracted workers into our discussions and with our employees.

Subscribe to Machinery Lubrication

About the Author

Howard Mavity has practiced law for nearly 30 years and is the founder of the Fisher and Phillips Workplace Safety and Catastrophe Management Practice Group. He has exte...