Terry McDonald: Site Safety

As entertaining as they may be, and indispensable at times, cell phones and personal music players present a new workplace distraction that needs to be addressed.

What constitutes a safety issue? Are they only those that are covered by OSHA? Are they only the issues that arise when one of our employees has been injured? Are they only the items you read about, or that companies that sell safety items promote? They are all of these and many more, as you know. Safety is an issue in every aspect of our lives, including our environment, our personal lives and habits, our relationships with everyone we come into contact with and, of course, our work.
When thinking of safety issues we often fail to consider all of the factors that are, and can be, involved. For instance, how has the proliferation of electronic means of communication affected the safety of your personnel? What brings this to mind is that I recently visited a shop in which many of the workers were using iPods or similar devices with earphones in both of their ears. In order to communicate directly with them it was necessary to approach them, tap them on the shoulder to gain their attention, and then they would take out the ear buds to talk with you. I used to think that the loud radios frequently found blaring in shops were a distraction, but this latest method of listening to music—or whatever they are listening to—is an even greater hazard to the level of safety found in your shop.
As I was considering this new hazard I began thinking of all the possible safety concerns that present-day and even future devices could present. We often talk about the aging of our workforce, but how do we cope with the generation now coming in that is used to the convenience of these devices? There are not only MP3 devices, but also cell phones with or without earphones. There are cell phones or other handheld devices that allow Internet surfing from anywhere, and at any time. Many of these devices also allow users to play games on them, and cell phones that contain cameras can also distract our workers. I am sure that there are other devices that could be included in this list, but my concern is how we as employers, safety professionals, or just concerned coworkers cope with the hazards created by the use of these devices. Can we just outlaw them in the workplace? That may prove to be a moot point, as many of these devices are so small that they’re not noticeable to the casual observer, and the generation coming into the workplace is so accustomed to using these devices that they may simply forget they have them on.
So what do we do? I’m sure that, as employers, you have a practice in place that covers employees making and receiving telephone calls, but how do you apply that to a cell phone that they carry in their pocket? How do you monitor their use of that type of phone? I have noticed that people seem to feel that using their cell phone is a right, no matter what the circumstances. All of us have heard cell phones ringing during movies, church services, funerals, and even in places such as hospitals and aboard airplanes where you are specifically asked to turn them off. And this problem is with only one of the myriad devices available. I haven’t even addressed texting, which has no audible sound to alert you that an employee is doing it, or the PDA—for personal digital assistant—devices that so many people use to schedule their time as well as keeping in touch with their friends, family, and coworkers. There is a time and a place for everything, of course, but you can’t let these activities interfere with the matter at hand, which is doing your job in a way that is safe for yourself and others.
Don’t be fooled by how casually people use these devices, because they represent a very real workplace safety hazard both to our employees as well as ourselves. Distractions are a major cause of accidents—just look at the number of cities and states that are outlawing phoning and texting in traffic situations. I wish I had a “one size fits all” answer to these relatively new safety hazards, but I don’t. I do have a column that can be used as a forum, however, and I would be happy to reprint your comments and suggestions if you would contact me at the e-mail address listed below. This is a relatively new issue that deserves our immediate attention. 
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is partner and manager of Repair Parts, Inc., and a current member and past–chairman of the American National Standards Institute B11.11 Subcommittee on Safety Requirements for Construction, Care, and Use of Gear Cutting Equipment. McDonald writes this monthly column specifically for Gear Solutions magazine, and he can be reached at (815) 968–4499 or rpi@repair–parts–inc.com. The company's Web site is [www.repair–parts–inc.com].