Missouri is the latest state to make changes to its laws about cell phone use in cars. As of August 1, the state prohibits text message by novice or teen drivers. But the fact remains that distracted driving continues to be an issue. In 2017 (the most recent statistics from the Department of Transportation), 3,166 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers, and 40 percent of occupational fatalities are transportation related.
Distraction can be anything from talking on the phone to changing the radio to eating a sandwich. While companies likely don’t regulate employee eating habits, they can make rules about cell phone use in vehicles and on the job.
Walsh Construction Group, based in Chicago, told a construction trade journal that it’s blocking mobile device distraction for more than 1,000 of its 3,500 employees using software technology created by TRUCE. The goal is to cut job site and traffic incidents.
Small painting contractors are likely not making that investment, says Ryan Amato, owner of Amato Painting in Easton, Pa., but it’s important that they have rules about cell phone use.
First, when it comes to driving, employees are expected to follow the local laws: Pennsylvania doesn’t ban all cell phones; nor does it have a statewide handheld ban (only local jurisdictions). It does, however, ban texting by all drivers. And employers may be liable.
According to DS Berenson, managing partner of Berenson LLC, a national law practice exclusive to the contracting and home improvement industry, “If the worker was ‘in the scope of employment’ when the accident occurred, the employer can be found liable, especially if the [cell phone] call was business related. If it was purely a personal call, and especially if the employer had a policy prohibiting cell phone use while driving--which is strongly advised--then the employer usually should be able to get off without a problem.” But, Berenson adds, “It depends heavily on the circumstances of the call and the accident and state law. No state bans cell phone use while driving, but 38 states have laws restricting use to hands-free or banning texting, etc.”
On the job, Amato’s 15 to 20 employees aren’t allowed to use cell phones unless they are on a break or lunch. Mostly, he says, “it hasn’t been an issue. They police themselves, and we’re direct about telling them it’s unacceptable. Plus, on a project you can see if someone is texting. It’s hard to paint with one arm.”
Amato does keep staff accountable. The first time an employee is on the phone when they aren’t supposed to be, they get a verbal warning, the second time it’s a written warning and the third time, they’re terminated. “We pay on so much square footage done in an hour. If someone’s not carrying their weight and it affects other people’s work, then it’s a problem. If they’re distracted — whether by taking too many breaks or using their cell phone — production will catch up to them.”
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