Phoning It in Safely: Evolving guidelines attempt to balance cellphone safety and communication needs

Shutterstock / Fotogrin
Shutterstock / Fotogrin
Published On
Nov 15, 2021

Cellphones are as ubiquitous as the workers on your job sites, and with or without strict rules of usage, these handheld, ever-smarter devices provide distractions and benefits to electricians, managers and companies. How to enhance the benefits and reduce distractions is a balancing act many contractors and project managers are still refining.

The challenge has been evolving, too. The dawn of the cellphone era delivered an unfamiliar and fast-growing distraction, especially as we have all grown increasingly captivated by what we can do with our smartphones. That shiny new era is over, and today’s phone is as necessary as the wallet and keys in your pocket or the watch on your wrist were decades ago.

However, phone distraction remains a problem. Even as today’s workers expect to put personal devices away during work, there are still times phones come back out of the pocket. In some cases, managers expect that, and find benefits in having the phone close at hand.

No shortage of rules

The IBEW Code of Excellence has been one driving factor in limiting workers’ personal cellphone use on the job, said Wesley Wheeler, director of safety at NECA. Even before they take their first job, apprentices have all been instructed not to use cellphones for personal purposes while on the clock.

Most contractors may allow a personal cellphone on the job for emergency contacts but don’t allow personal use in the field. Banning Bluetooth devices and headsets that could interfere with safety and communication is another common guideline.

On the other hand, Wheeler said, cellphones keep communications open, and that’s where purchasing company phones may be worthwhile.

“Company-provided cellphones are a major avenue for project managers to stay connected to field supervision and project employees, in addition to other smart devices and tablets that allow emails and transfer of project documentation,” he said.

However, most contractors don’t have the budget to provide a work-dedicated phone to every electrician.

“Most of the time, in addition to a company policy around personal cellphones on the job, some employers may opt to compensate the employee if their cellphone is used for job-related communications,” he said.

Phone distraction is a challenge faced at various levels by every employer, but there are safety concerns unique to construction sites. According to OSHA guidelines, construction employers need to enact and enforce clear policies that prohibit texting and talking on a cellphone while operating any kind of motorized vehicle on-site. In addition, they should consider prohibiting workplace cellphone use in areas where distractions could create hazards, regardless of whether there are vehicles involved, OSHA dictates.

For company-issued cellphones, there still need to be limits. OSHA recommends using applications that block internet access and texting while in a moving vehicle, for example.

Beyond these guidelines, contractors can go further. When it’s necessary, and, if radios are available as an alternative, some choose to make construction sites cellphone-free zones, and post signs in designated areas to remind workers that the devices need to be left behind. In this case, workers are only allowed access to their phones during breaks and in designated areas.

The electrical industry has set up its own recommendations that “electronic devices issued to the employee by the employer should only be used for company business. For emergency purposes only, personal cellular telephones and personal beepers shall be permitted on the job site.”

Even with these common-sense guidelines in place, human behavior still brings all kinds of challenges.

“My experience was, every job handled it a little different, depending on the supervision,” said A.J. McAteer, chapter executive director at NECA’s Long Island chapter. Rule enforcement is another story. For his part, McAteer conducted many toolbox talks about the distractions caused by phone use to emphasize the dangers.

The double-edged sword

Consider someone working in an attic, crawl space or underground tunnel who needs emergency help.

“With a phone in their pocket, they have another means of communication,” said Michael Johnston, NECA’s executive director of codes and standards.

Contractors need to find ways to address the hazards, especially around driving, without losing all benefits.

The roofing industry is one trade keeping a close eye on safety. Despite the industry’s high risk factor, distracted driving on the way to and from a work site remains the most common hazard, said Tom Shanahan, vice president of enterprise risk management and executive education at the National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA), Rosemont, Ill. It is as much a problem for the workforce as for the general public. NRCA sponsors a business workers’ compensation insurance program to address distracted driving, and Shanahan said he has seen auto claims go up precipitously because of cellphone-based accidents. Many of these are rear-ending incidents.

To address the problem, some roofing contractors use toolbox talks about distracted driving, and others have acquired systems to block phone use when the vehicle is running, except for 911 calls.

That’s not always convenient when the person calling or texting is the boss. Anecdotally, Shanahan said that some insurance claims regarding cellphone-related auto accidents resulted from an employer on a call with an employee. That indicates all parties need to modify behavior and let what seems urgent wait until the crew arrives on site or back at the office. Conversely, the number of insurance claims from workers injuring themselves on the job because of phone use are considerably less than those behind the wheel.

Cellphones can support workers with weather-related apps, especially for roofers, who are expected to check these apps periodically throughout the day while on-site in potentially stormy weather.

Shutterstock / Prostock-Studio
Shutterstock / Prostock-Studio

“So for our purposes, on the job, it’s a real tool in terms of forecasting properly, weather, rain, snow, high winds (or accidents),” Shanahan said.

Even in the case of fall protection, phones can be used for self-rescue. If a worker falls or is otherwise compromised (such as hanging off a roof where no one sees you), that phone is the best way to let people know you need help.

Some change in phone use is happening organically. Shanahan said he teaches foremen leadership and communication practices, including how to get employees off their phones, but he feels the problem may be reducing overtime, at least behind the wheel.

“Over the last 10 years, maybe less, distracted driving has been on the top of the [incidents] list and driven higher premiums. We’re all paying for that,” he said.

In the last year, though, claims were down, Shanahan said. But that may be as much due to the pandemic-related slowdowns as changes in phone-use behavior.

Real-world complexities

Contractors such as Morrow-Meadows Corp., City of Industry, Calif., take a proactive approach to managing worker safety around phone use. Bottom line, even as phones become less exciting to users, the distraction element is huge when it comes to safety, said Bradley Caldwell, the company’s corporate safety director. He has witnessed near-miss incidents where individuals operating machinery were on their phone and nearly hit another worker, or damaged something in a building.

“The constant buzzing of social media, or texts, is a big temptation. Having workers in the middle of critical tasks stopping to read texts really raises the risks of injuries and property damage,” he said.

Anyone can fall prey to the pull of the phone, he pointed out, and sometimes that means encouraging personal responsibility. In fact, Caldwell has enabled the “do not disturb” setting on his own device to kick on while driving, “and anyone that texts me gets a message that I am driving and I will get back to them as soon as I am stopped.”

In the meantime, if dedicated devices are affordable, they provide a way to leverage the benefits, with fewer distractions. Randy Olmos, Morrow-Meadows’ vice president of field construction, said most of the company’s crew foremen have either a company-provided flip phone or iPhone.

For larger projects, companies can still rely on the tried-and-true walkie-talkie. However, there are also projects where radios just don’t work, Olmos noted, and his company used to issue flip phones for those locations, but now, “We are shifting to all iPhone use going forward, due to limitations on flip phones.”

“Our policy is that personal cellphone use is not permitted. Some of the jurisdictions we work in have amended their collective bargaining agreements not allowing a member to use his personal phone on the project,” Olmos said.

“All supervisors also have iPads that they can use for our company apps and for messaging between supervisors,” Olmos said.

They also provide a weekly stipend for a supervisor who is asked to use his phone for company business. Based on improper cellphone use infractions, Morrow-Meadows has a stepped discipline and counseling protocol.

The question of phone use can be further complicated by the proliferation of apps that target construction work and that often provide real support for many tasks, improving efficiency and safety. Olmos provided a few examples of information that can be accessed on smartphones: conduit-bending formulas, sizing of electrical pull boxes, voltage-drop calculations, conductor-fill calculations and electrical calculations. Phones can also be used for basic mathematical calculations, accessing the National Electrical Code, and creating or viewing job site photo documentation.

Mobile usage guidelines provide the foundation for phone use, while managing the balance of personal behavior and safety risks and benefits is an evolving effort. That effort will demand everyone keep these guidelines in mind at each project, by each supervisor, and successful results may depend on support from the electricians and related workers themselves.

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