People often think of distractions as minor and momentary – checking the phone or sipping coffee during a commute, or chatting with a coworker while operating a machine.
In fact, distractions not only affect performance in the workplace, according to Gilbert’s Risk Solutions, a Pennsylvania-based business and commercial insurance agency, “they’re one of the leading causes of on-the-job injuries. Injuries also affect employee morale; cause lasting, substantial employee impairment; increase insurance premiums; and reduce your company’s bottom line.”
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) takes the issue of distractions very seriously.
“Distraction is a growing and life-threatening problem in all modes of transportation,” the NTSB notes in its 2019-2020 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements.
“All drivers, pilots, and operators need to eliminate distractions and stay focused on safely operating their vehicle, aircraft, vessel, or train. Pedestrians are equally susceptible to distraction and need to remain aware of their surroundings.”
At many companies, occupational health and safety (OHS) professionals are the ones charged with reducing distractions in the workplace, including among employees who are required to drive or operate machinery as part of their jobs. Degree programs such as Eastern Kentucky University’s online Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety can help safety professionals prepare to manage these concerns.
The Dangers of Distractions
Driving-related distractions are the most serious type of interruption and the most frequent cause of worker fatalities. According to recent statistics, distractions account for 40% (2,080 people) of all work-related deaths, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says in its National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries 2019 press release.
BLS data also reveals that drivers, sales workers and truck drivers were most affected, with 966 deaths. Drivers of heavy trucks and tractor-trailers had 831 fatalities.
Overall, including both work and non-work incidents, distracted driving was reported as a factor in 8.5% of fatal motor vehicle crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Driver distractions take a variety of forms, NHTSA notes, including talking or texting on the phone, talking to others in the vehicle, eating or drinking, and adjusting the stereo or navigation system.
“Texting is the most alarming distraction,” NHTSA.gov’s “Distracted Driving” webpage says. “Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for 5 seconds. At 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of an entire football field with your eyes closed.”
Distracted driving may play a far larger role in highway accidents. Drew Schimelpfenig, product manager with the Omnitracs Safety Center of Excellence, told Fleet Owner magazine that distracted driving was at the root of 87% of motor vehicle crashes. His comment is based on 10 years of data from Omnitracs, a provider of software solutions for over-the-road and other types of fleets.
A particular danger for fleet drivers, he adds, is that “truck driving is one of the only professions in which professionals share their workspace with those who are far less trained.”
Though most distraction-related injuries and fatalities occur on the roadways, operators of other forms of transportation, including watercraft, airplanes, and trains, are affected as well.
“Increased use of portable electronic devices (PEDs) among commercial transportation employees has made distractions more prevalent and resulted in a heightened safety risk,” the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) notes in its Most Wanted List of Safety Improvements. “We know that focusing on or thinking about anything other than the task at hand impairs performance and can lead to tragic consequences.”
The National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse sounds a similar alarm about worker distraction on road and bridge construction projects and other jobsites that require heavy machinery.
“Distractions can also keep you from maintaining risk awareness on the job. Your cell phone or smart device is one of the biggest distractors. While most agencies prohibit use of personal devices while working, more and more equipment and work tasks rely on workers utilizing these devices for job duties,” according to the organization, which is a project of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) Transportation Development Foundation in cooperation with the U.S. Federal Highway Administration and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
The clearinghouse goes on to warn that distractions reduce work accuracy and contribute to what it calls “risk blindness,” a situation where people can overlook hazards that are normally obvious.
Strategies for Reducing Distractions in the Workplace
Reducing distraction-related injuries and deaths, the NTSB maintains, means that people behind the wheel – or at the helm or the controls of a machine – have to completely put down their PEDs.
“We realize, however, that it will take a cultural change for drivers to understand that their safety depends on disconnecting from distractions. If real change is to happen, it will require a three-pronged approach that includes strict laws, proper education, and effective enforcement,” the agency declares in its Most Wanted List.
Here’s some of what the NTSB and related agencies advocate:
Prohibit PEDs in flight as well as during safety-critical ground activities such as flight planning and preflight inspection, except for devices necessary for operating the aircraft.
Ban non-emergency use of PEDs (other than those needed for driving) for all drivers. The NTSB first called for a nationwide ban on PEDs while driving back in December 2011.
Require in-cab technology that detects signal-emitting PEDs and can alert railroad management about the devices in real time.
For fleet drivers, Schimelpfenig suggests playing “what-if” – in other words, thinking about scenarios such as: what if that car changes lanes suddenly? Or what if a piece of equipment falls off that tractor-trailer?
The exercise helps drivers stay focused, hones their defensive driving skills, and develops situational awareness, he says.
Christopher Hayes, second vice president of Risk Control, Transportation Services at Travelers Insurance, also spoke to Fleet Owner magazine and offered these tips for safer fleet driving and management:
- Use cell phone blockers to reduce distractions.
- Set the GPS before leaving and mounting the device or phone in a location that will be hands-free throughout the drive.
- Practice safety and situational awareness in the office as well.
“We’ve seen situations when a dispatcher is calling a driver when the driver is on the road,” Hayes says. Talk to the office staff about distracted driving too, he advises and “make that safety work inside the four walls as well as inside the vehicle.”
About Eastern Kentucky University’s Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety Program
Eastern Kentucky University’s online bachelor’s degree in occupational health and safety is designed to show students how to identify safety risks and potential areas of improvement in workplace conditions.
Industry-experienced safety professionals guide students through occupational safety courses, covering modern trends in employee engagement and the establishment of a safety culture in the workplace. For more information, contact EKU today.
Workplace distractions: Gilbert’s Risk Solutions
2019-2020 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements: NTSB
Work-related deaths: BLS
Distracted Driving: NHTSA
Distracted driving, additional data: Fleet Owner
Most Wanted List of Safety Improvements: NTSB
Reducing distractions: NTSB
Reducing distractions: Fleet Owner