Cell Phone Safety at Work

Posted: Mar. 30, 2021

Cell phone use and driving

The distraction caused by cell phone use while driving is well documented and publicized as a cause of accidents. The U.S. DOT reports that: “…To date, at least 32 countries have enacted laws banning cell phone use while driving”. It’s the distraction from the task at hand that is the issue with cell phone use. This month we examine cell phone use at work and its potential effects on safety. 

Don’t vilify cell phones 

Cell phones use is widespread because they combine so many useful elements that we used to use separately. Radio, newspaper, computer, music player, camera, phone, television, are packaged in one easy-to-use handheld device that invites users to look down and engage with it. 

Cell phones have become a lightning rod for the dangers of being distracted but it’s important to remember that:

  • Cell phones can make a positive contribution to safety at the workplace
  • Any distraction from the task at hand can be unsafe

The focus should be on the rules that will permit safe cell phone use rather than vilifying the device and alienating workers.

The dangers of cell phone use at work 

It seems obvious that cell phone use while driving at work and, by extension, when operating mobile equipment presents an unacceptable safety hazard. But what about other work activities?

A study published in Accident Analysis and Prevention reports that of 15,000 working age Finns 4.5% had experienced close calls (near miss incidents) at work, where the mobile phone had a partial effect, in the previous 12 months. As might be expected the rate was nearly 3 times higher for leisure activities away from more structured environments at work.

We can reasonably expect distractions from cell phone use at work to be hazardous when:

  • Operating equipment that can injure or cause damage;
  • Engaged in watching over the well being of others (safety watch, traffic coordination);
  • Engaged in critical inspections or monitoring (filling, testing, pressurizing);
  • Working in higher risk environments (heights, confined spaces, high traffic, hazardous atmospheres);
  • Walking, climbing or using stairs;
  • Working with hazardous substances.

Workers may reasonably be expected to safely dis-engage from these activities before they are allowed to access their cell phones.

Cell phone use is so prevalent and integrated into our day-to-day activities that workers unknowingly split their attention between the task at hand and the device.

Cell phones can contribute to safety at work 

Cell phones can and do contribute to safety at work, some common examples include:

  • Summoning help when working alone or driving in isolated locations;
  • Alerting workers to emergencies and changes in plans and conditions;
  • Trip planning and verifying weather and driving conditions;
  • Reducing stress by staying in touch with family members and friends;
  • Accessing safety information and recording safety incidents.

The list goes on, but it’s important to recognize that cell phones can and have made a significant positive contribution to safety in the workplace.

Best practices – establish clear rules around cell phone use

The best way to manage the pros and cons of cell phone use at work is to establish safety and common courtesy based rules on their use, and to clearly communicate this to all workers. 

  • Hazard and risk analyses should be used to establish how and when cell phones can be used. 
  • Workers must receive site-specific training on how and when cell phones can be used at their work site.
  • Determine how to allow for extenuating circumstances based on life balance issues (checking on sick family members). 

Cell phones can both enhance and detract from safety at work. Clear, fact-based rules governing their use will benefit all work parties.

Clear rules on cell phone use will benefit all work site parties.


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