Making the Call

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November/December 2016

A well-written cellphone policy can help eliminate hazards caused by distracted driving or working—but only when that policy is properly executed and enforced.

By Megan Quinn

A few years back, employees at Consolidated Scrap Resources (York, Pa.) got a memo announcing a big change to the company’s cellphone policy: Once yard workers cross through the gate and onto the property, they must put their phones away, regardless of whether or not they are on duty yet. Before the change, employees could use their phones before their shifts started, but that nebulous time between when they set foot in the yard and when they started work was causing some safety problems, says Safety Director Rick Hare. “In some of our facilities, you have to pass through areas where there’s activity, like moving cars and forklift traffic, so we just said, ‘No phones as soon as you pass through the gate’ because the guys were just not paying attention,” he says.

Employees distracted by their phones can fall victim to serious accidents when working with heavy machinery, driving a truck, operating mobile equipment, or simply walking through the scrapyard. Enforcing cellphone restrictions is one way to reduce distractions that can cause safety hazards.

As mobile devices become more and more entwined in everyday life, scrapyards such as CSR have updated their cellphone policies accordingly. Well-written cellphone policies explain when and where mobile phones are restricted, outline special rules for company-issued cellphones, and underscore the penalties workers face if caught using their phone during an unauthorized time. Whether you’re writing a policy for the first time or updating an existing document, make sure your cellphone policy is clear and easily available to employees. Most important, be prepared to enforce the policy to show how important responsible cellphone use is to safety. “Without enforcement, you have accidents,” Hare says.

Assessing Phone Access

Some scrapyards have approached the cellphone problem by banning the phones for all employees and using two-way radios or in-person communication for daily tasks instead. Yet other scrapyards have crafted rules that ban personal cellphones for some employees and allow cellphone use for others based on their job duties. There is no one “best” set of rules dictating who should or should not have access to cellphones, and OSHA does not have a written policy on the matter, says Mark Lies, a lawyer who specializes in occupational safety and health law and employment law for Seyfarth Shaw (Chicago). It’s up to companies to look closely at their operations and decide how likely it is that a cellphone will cause a safety hazard instead of easing communication, he says.

Some scrap companies, such as PK Metals (Coram, N.Y.), sort workers into one of three cellphone-access categories based on their job responsibilities: yard workers, supervisors, and fleet drivers. Yard workers are the most likely group of workers to be restricted from using personal phones while on the job, says Tony Smith, ISRI’s director of safety outreach, because they typically work with and around heavy machinery, walk through different parts of the recycling facility, and use mobile equipment. All of these tasks mix badly with the distractions of mobile phones, he says. According to PK’s policy, yard workers must leave their personal cellphones in their locker or car glove compartment during their shift. These employees must wait until their break to use their cellphones for personal calls and texts, says Bill Rouse, PK’s quality, environmental, health, and safety manager.

Supervisors at both PK and CSR use company-issued cellphones for daily communication and logistics. The phones are only for work-related matters and must only be used in “safe zones” that are away from mobile equipment traffic, heavy machinery, and other hazards. “We text a lot [for] communication. It’s less distracting. You can look down and see you have a message,” then move to a safe area before responding, Rouse says.

Smith says the “safe zone” approach is common for companies that issue work cellphones to supervisors or managers or in smaller yards where all employees use cellphones, not walkie-talkies, to communicate. Common “safe zone” areas are a warehouse without mobile-equipment traffic, a workshop area away from heavy equipment that is in operation, or an open area away from stacked bundles or bales. Regardless of which employees are allowed to use their phones while on the job, Smith says, company policy should be clear that the devices are for crucial work communication and nothing else. Even then, safety should be first. “If you’re going to talk, stop and get yourself in an area where you can see the big picture,” he says. “Take yourself out of the operation. When you’re on your phone, you’re walking and talking, you’re not focused on what’s in front and around you.”

PK and CSR also issue cellphones to their drivers with the expectation that they follow a specific set of rules, company policies, and rules from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which restricts the use of all hand-held mobile devices for commercial vehicle drivers.

What About Emergencies?

Cellphones can be handy and even lifesaving tools when there’s an emergency in a facility, and they can keep workers in the loop when a loved one has an emergency outside of work. Yet Hare says the risks of allowing all workers to carry their cellphones “just for emergencies” can outweigh the rewards.

He recalls a situation in which a worker asked if he could keep his phone on him because a family member was in the hospital. Hare said no. “You’re running the risk that they are glancing at it, thinking, ‘Did I miss a call?’ If you’re a mobile equipment operator, that’s a big risk,” he says. Instead, he says, employees can work out safe solutions with their supervisor. “If you ask your supervisor, ‘Can I check my messages really quick?’ he probably will say, ‘OK.’ It’s better to work it out than take a risk.” Employers also should make it clear that it’s OK to check messages and make personal phone calls during breaks, as long as employees do so in safe areas such as lunchrooms, he says.

Design cellphone policies to prevent further accidents and emergencies, not just respond to current emergencies, Smith says. When he visits scrapyards around the country, he gets asked a common question: “What if my wife is in labor?” Companies can do what they did before cellphones were invented, he replies: Use the company’s main phone line as a safe way to communicate between employees and the outside world. Ask your employees to share the number with their loved ones, and make it clear that the main number is the safest and most effective way to get in touch with them during the day. Office personnel can pass any messages to the appropriate supervisor, who can then safely inform a worker if there’s an emergency that needs attention, he says.

What if the emergency happens inside the facility? That’s where a company’s emergency action plan comes into play, Smith says. Each company should have written proto­cols for alerting all workers in an emergency, meeting at a safe muster point, and accounting for the whereabouts of all workers and visitors, regardless of whether they have a cellphone. This is one reason PK Metals’ supervisors have cellphones, Rouse says: to aid in communicating emergencies with all workers through a predetermined chain of command. Periodically review emergency proto­cols and update information about cellphone use so all employees know how to get in contact in case of an emergency, Smith says. Knowing who has a company-issued cellphone also helps, he says.

Effective Enforcement

Unauthorized cellphone use is a safety infraction, and many scrapyards use the same disciplinary actions for cellphones as they do for other safety infractions: a verbal warning, a written warning, suspension, and eventual termination, Rouse says. Yet even the best-written policies are not effective if these punishments are not enforced.

Smith says he sometimes catches equipment operators cradling a phone between their ear and shoulder or texting while working on a shredder picking line. The common misconception is that these offenders are just the lazy employees or the younger workers who are used to having their smartphone close at hand, but company representatives say they see this behavior in all kinds of employees, whether they are new or longtime workers of any age or seniority. “I’ve explained the policy, given out copies, only to have some people completely disregard it, regardless of age. These people get suspended” if they keep violating the policy, Hare says.

Enforcement has to start at the top, Smith says. Employees know not to use their phones out in the scrapyard, but it’s hard not to be tempted when they see others sneak a look at social media when the boss isn’t around. In some cases, it’s the boss who’s sneaking a peek at Facebook, he says. “When you have management using a cellphone [when they are not supposed to], you sometimes see employees start to mimic that,” which takes the teeth out of the policy, he says. At some facilities, employees say they feel comfortable calling out a fellow employee when he or she breaks the rules, but those same workers stay mum when they see the owner’s son or another senior employee take a call in an unsafe area, he says. When rules are unevenly enforced, “that’s a big issue,” he says.

Lies also recommends consistent enforcement because of its legal ramifications. If a company has a clearly-written policy but doesn’t enforce it, that company might be liable if there’s proof that a cellphone might have been a factor in a work-related accident. “If you become aware that a cellphone
is being used improperly, you have to move on that and move quickly,” he says.

Reviewing and Updating Your Policy

These days, it’s rare for scrapyards to lack a cellphone policy, but Smith says more and more companies are starting to look at their current policy to see if it needs to be updated to reflect modern times. If your company does not have a written policy, “now is the time to do it,” Lies adds. As time goes on, “liability is increasing. It’s not going away.”

Get input from supervisors and managers who are most familiar with employee habits and “who see what’s going on out there on a daily basis and can make the implementation much smoother,” Smith says. Share a proposed or revised policy with senior leadership and human resources. Get a legal opinion, too, Lies says. Find a lawyer who is familiar with labor law to ensure your policy complies with local, state, and federal laws. Companies that issue work cellphones should include a clause about usage expectations, he recommends. Clearly state that the phones must only be used for work and must not be used in a manner that violates other employer policies—for example, to threaten or harass other employees or to share sensitive, private employee medical information.

Then, take time to clearly go over any changes or updates with all employees. New employees should get a copy of the policy when attending training, but even longtime employees sometimes need a reminder, Hare says. Scrolling through a smartphone is now second nature, but “when you have a lapse of judgment [while using a phone], you are not the only one affected by an injury or accident,” Hare says. “Friends, family, and co-workers are affected when you make that mistake.”

Megan Quinn is reporter/writer for Scrap.

[SIDEBAR]

Taking Cellphones on the Road

Scrapyards often have cellphone policies that apply specifically to employees who drive commercial vehicles. Drivers are subject to many more state and federal cellphone rules than typical yard workers, and drivers encounter uniquely dangerous situations, such as high speeds, heavy loads, and congested traffic.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has steadfast rules regulating fleet drivers who want to use hand-held cellphones while driving. Consolidated Scrap Resources’ (York, Pa.) Safety Director Rick Hare sums them up in one word: “Don’t.”

In short, it is illegal for a CMV driver to hold a phone to make a call, dial by pressing more than one button, or reach for his or her phone in a way that requires the driver to move out of a sitting position, FMCSA says. And forget texting: It’s strictly forbidden when driving. According to research from Virginia Tech, a truck driver texting while driving is 23 times more likely to get into an accident than a driver paying full attention.

FMCSA does allow drivers to use hands-free features such as voice-activated dialing, Bluetooth earpieces, and speakerphones that require drivers to touch only a single button to make a call. But it is against the law for a driver to unsafely reach for the phone while driving, even if he or she intends to use a hands-free function, FMCSA says.

Several scrapyards incorporate or refer to these laws in their company cellphone policy, but others, such as CSR, have even stricter expectations for their drivers, who use company-issued phones while on the road. “We don’t want our drivers to be on the phone at all,” Hare says. “Our drivers have asked, ‘Can we get Bluetooth?’ And we say no.”

CSR is in the process of updating its cellphone policy for fleet drivers to better match its current expectations. The policy, which the firm wrote in 2008, states that drivers who answer a call while driving must inform the caller that he or she will call them back when “safely stopped off a public roadway.” The driver must hang up within 10 seconds. That part of the policy no longer fits with CSR’s expectations and FMCSA’s current regulations, Hare says. “If you’re trying to answer the phone at 55 miles per hour, it’s hard to concentrate. … They should just let it ring.”

The threat of crashes is reason enough to have a strict policy, Hare says. FMCSA says the odds of being involved in a “safety-critical event”—such as accidentally drifting into another lane or getting involved in a crash—are six times greater for CMV drivers who dial a mobile phone while driving than for those who do not.

Many company representatives say they want their drivers to pull over to a safe area before returning or initiating any calls, regardless of what FMCSA allows. Bill Rouse, quality, environmental, health, and safety manager for PK Metals (Coram, N.Y.), says he expects his drivers to pull over. “We really don’t like them using hands-free unless it’s an emergency.” The policy for Sadoff Iron & Metal Co. (Fond du Lac, Wis.) states that company-issued, hands-free devices are the best option when a call is unavoidable, and CMV drivers “may only use a hand-held mobile telephone when a situation makes it necessary to communicate with law enforcement officials or other emergency services,” such as reporting an accident or drunk driver. CSR encourages drivers to use their company-issued phones to take photos of emergencies or safety violations, such as an overloaded or unsafe container, but only when the vehicle is safely stopped.

It can be tricky to tell if drivers are complying with these rules when “they’re ‘out of sight, out of mind’ on the road,” Hare says. Check in with drivers to make sure they understand the rules, he says. At CSR, when law enforcement or management catches a driver repeatedly violating cellphone rules, those drivers can get suspended or even lose their jobs. FMCSA rules also call for a driver with “multiple violations” to be disqualified from driving commercial vehicles.

Violations have monetary consequences as well. In the United States, penalties can be up to $2,750 for drivers caught using hand-held mobile devices while driving and up to $11,000 for their employers, the FMCSA says. Parts of Canada take it seriously when a driver even appears distracted, says ISRI Safety Outreach Director Tony Smith. On a recent trip to a scrapyard in Ontario, Smith said employees there mentioned they face a hefty fine of $300 to $500 for simply looking down “for a prolonged period of time” while driving a vehicle.

Review your drivers’ cellphone policy from time to time to make sure it reflects the most recently issued FMCSA rules as well as any local and state laws, says Commodor Hall, ISRI’s director of transportation safety. Though no states yet ban hands-free devices, places such as the District of Columbia have considered a full ban on hands-free and hand-held phone use as recently as last year. Though CSR already tells its fleet drivers not to use hands-free or handheld devices, Hare says he still keeps track of local and state cellphone laws to stay in the know.

It’s important to be realistic when crafting a cellphone policy, Rouse says. He would prefer that drivers not use their phones at all, but he also realizes they can be important tools to drivers who can use them to report accidents or use relevant apps. PK’s drivers use the company-issued phones for driving directions, for example, as long as they enter addresses while they’re safely pulled over, he says. “You definitely have to use the technology of the day to get things done.”

A well-written cellphone policy can help eliminate hazards caused by distracted driving or working—but only when that policy is properly executed and enforced.
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