Restricting the use of distracting devices in the workplace isn’t quite as simple as it seems at first blush but it needs to be done.

According to the International Data Corporation of Framingham Massachusetts, there were more than one billion smart devices in use and that number is expected to rise above two billion by 2016; given the total population of the world that is an extremely high number of devices.

So what’s the problem?

Distraction is a key contributor to human error and can impair judgment to an extent comparable to alcohol; distracted drivers are in an increasing number of traffic accidents. While most people are aware of the dangers of distracting devices, fewer recognize the dangers of merely walking while listening to music, checking email, or simply being distracted.

In the book The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons recount their findings of their seminal “Invisible Gorilla” study. In this study, they produced a video tape of two teams playing basketball, one team wearing white shirts and the other wearing black. Subjects were told to concentrate only on the players wearing white shirts while ignoring the players wearing black shirts and to count the passes the white team made. In the middle of the video, a student wearing a full gorilla suit entered the play, walked in front of the camera, thumped her chest and exited. In total the gorilla was on screen over nine seconds and yet fully 50 percent of the test subjects failed to see the gorilla. 

This study has been validated and replicated many times and the implications it has for the safety of a distracted workforce are profound. The study concluded that most people are likely to miss unexpected events when they are concentrating on another task.

Further, serious injuries and fatalities caused by being “struck by or against” something have been increasing and is likely to be an enforcement priority by OSHA. This added to the already serious threat posed by slip, trip, and fall, injuries and unrestricted use of distracting devices represents a significant risk to worker safety.

The connectivity dichotomy

Banning distracting devices is the kind of knee-jerk reaction we’ve come to know and love from safety professionals, but it isn’t feasible or even advisable. Consider the following quote from the Apple website:

“iPad absolutely helps people be more efficient. Better quality, better productivity, a reduction in costs, a happier customer. You’re able to transform more lives.”

            —Walker Kimball, senior vice president, Bechtel

Walker Kimball is not alone in his admiration for the practical business applications for tablets, phones, and the wonderful, useful “apps” they provide.  Go to the Apple Apps store and you will find thousands of useful app for increasing workplace productivity and even safety, and this is just Apple. 

Tablets and phones aren’t the only distracting devices, for that matter. Workers can just as easily be distracted by radios, bar code readers, or…practically any portable device irrespective of its purpose. In a business world where time is increasingly money, the rapid transfer of information from individuals in the field to key decision makers directly correlates to increased productivity and profitability. In fact, reacting to distracting devices with a knee-jerk, one-size-fits-all regulation not only hamstrings innovation and continual improvement efforts, but it also reinforces the image of the safety professional as the out-of-touch theorist, self-righteous obstructionist, or clueless goofball.

So while the benefits of these devices are real, so too are the dangers their use pose:

“The human toll is tragic. DOT reports that in 2009, more than 5,400 people died in crashes linked to distraction and thousands more were injured. “Texting while driving” has become such a prominent hazard that 30 states now ban text messaging for all drivers.”

            —David Michaels, PhD, MPH, US Department of Labor

In a memo to employers the U.S. Department of Labor, Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health, Dr. David Michael, acknowledged the advantages of new and useful technology, but questions the value proposition associated with the use of these devices while driving, according to Michaels, “There’s no question that new communications technologies are helping business work smarter and faster. But getting work done faster does not justify the dramatically increased risk of injury and death that comes with texting while driving.”

While Michaels is certainly correct in condemning texting while driving, this practice is only the latest and most widely publicized dangers of distracting devices. 

First, texting is not the only distracting device-based activity that happens while driving. My use of the qualifier, “device-based” is both deliberate and appropriate. Drivers, particularly commercial drivers, routinely use laptop computers, tablets, global positioning systems, music players (from the in-dash radio to elaborate sound systems and accessories) and a host of emerging devices while driving.

Studies by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, Joseph T. Hallinan, and others have shown that the distraction from devices is significantly more dangers than distractions from things like eating in the car or having a conversation with a passenger. Some theorize that, apart from providing another set of eyes alert to dangers in traffic, the fact that over 95 percent of communication between two people is nonverbal, which takes less than brain power to process than a conversation between two people via a phone or radio.

Much of the media attention has focused on driver distraction, but a growing number of fatalities are arising from distracted pedestrians. Pedestrians who are so absorbed in the use of a distracting device are often afflicted with inattention blindness, that is, they will miss unusual events (like a forklift barreling down on them or a delivery truck rounding a corner) and step into the path of certain death.  While the primary concern of OSHA has been distracted drivers the rise is pedestrian deaths is sure to change this dynamic, and this change is likely to come sooner than later.

Arguments for banning distracting devices

The arguments for banning distracting devices are clear and make a lot of sense.

First and foremost, they are dangerous, but then so are a lot of things that we judge as being worth the risk. Driving and traffic related accidents consistently rank as one of the leading causes of workplace fatalities, and there is consensus that many of these deaths could have been prevented had there been less distraction of drivers.

Employee Liability versus Corporate Liability

Apart from the obvious risk of a worker death, increasingly, organizations are concerned of the tricky liability associated with driver distraction, to wit, if the organization doesn’t have a policy banning distracting devices will the organization be judged as culpable should one of their employees kill someone while driving while distracted?  The temptation is to ban all devices, but increasingly the law is viewing policies that are widely disregarded or simply on the books with no expectation of compliance as akin to no policy at all. So simply put, having a vague, all-inclusive “thou shalt not…” policy may not safeguard your organization from liability as much as you may like.

The Myth of Multitasking

According to Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, studies have shown that the more incompetent a person tends to be, the more mistakenly confident they are in their abilities. Joseph T. Hallinan points to studies that show that most people believe they are well above average (an impossibility, given the definition of the word “average”). It is counter intuitive, but the worse a person tends to be at a particular skill the more likely they are to have high confidence in their ability. In fact, studies have shown that the higher the competency a person has, the greater the tendency for them to rank their skills lower than they actually are.

Perhaps the most widely over estimated skill is one’s ability to “multi-task.”  Multi-tasking grew in popularity in the 1980s when people were pushed to do “more with less”. People were quizzed in interviews on their ability to multi-task, and those individuals who seemed to be expert “multi-taskers” were extolled for their prowess in business; the only problem is, neurologically speaking, multi-tasking is a myth. The human brain is incapable of multi-tasking and people who appear to possess superior multi-tasking abilities are in fact just individuals with strong short term memories. The ability to quickly resume what one had previously abandoned creates the illusion of multitasking but it is just that: illusion.

In his book, Whack-a-Mole: The Price We Pay for Expecting Perfection, David Marx identifies what he calls “performance shaping behaviors,” that is, factors that tend to increase people’s tendency to make a human error include distraction. So clearly if we want to protect workers we have to reduce distraction overall, and distracting devices specifically.

Arguments against banning distracting devices

While the villagers are out with torches and pitchforks clamoring to drive the distracting device monster out, the reality is that there is significant support for a more practical approach. 

In fact, many organizations are finding that the out and out ban on distracting devices is doing more harm than good.

For years cab drivers have been using global positioning systems to efficiently get their customers where they are going. Delivery trucks use similar devices to get goods to customers as quickly and efficiently as possible. Proponents of the devices argue that it is far safer to have a driver use a hands-free GPS to route them than to print out a map from the internet and be reading while driving. But the proponents don’t stop there, and argue that the benefits of distracting devices often far outweigh the risks.  Take weather apps for example.  Oil and gas workers, farmers, utility workers and fisherman often rely on smart device weather apps to warn them of dangerous changes in weather.  By banning on the job use of these apps, proponents argue, we are subjecting workers to a greater risk than those endemic to distracting devices.

Similarly, many industries depend on a cellular device to summon help in cases of emergencies in remote area.  Workers who are working alone or in small groups rely on smart devices to summon help, and without these devices, they argue, they are at significant risk.

In a growing number of companies, tablets and smart phones are replacing PCs and desk phones, so any attempt to ban or restrict these devices need to consider the changing workplace.