OSHA Regulations on Cell Phone Use at Work

Is it Smart to Use Your Cell Phone While At Work?

October 1, 2014 - I got my first cell phone way back in the 1980’s, when they were a very unusual (and expensive) novelty. Now it seems that a smart phone is a “must have” for every person over the age of 10. But I am still shocked every time I see somebody either talking on their cellphone or using it to send or read text messages and emails while at work.

I’m not talking about those people on their cell phones who are sitting at a desk or standing behind a sales counter (although it aggravates me to no end to be ignored by a sales rep who is busy texting to help a customer); my concern is for those workers I have witnessed during workplace safety audits who are chatting away or typing a text message into their cell phone while performing relatively complex tasks such as driving a forklift, operating a backhoe, or walking across a steel beam 20 feet in the air. I once saw a construction worker talking away on his cell phone get brushed by a car while he was setting out cones for traffic control at a busy intersection (he wandered out into the road a little too far) And I worked as an expert witness on a lawsuit where a worker severed several fingers on one of his hands while cutting steel with a chop saw (he was cradling his phone between his neck and ear – his own version of hands-free operation). Are there specific federal OSHA regulations that prohibit such behavior?  The answer may surprise you.

It seems that the only federal OSHA regulation that I could find specifically forbidding the use of a cell phone while working is in their relatively new “Cranes & Derricks in Construction” standards. There you will find standard 1926.1417(d), which states; “The [crane or derrick] operator must not engage in any practice or activity that diverts his/her attention while actually engaged in operating the equipment, such as the use of cellular phones (other than when used for signal communications).” And if the cell phone is used for receiving signals, OSHA standard 1926.1420(c) requires that “the operator's reception of signals must be by a hands-free system”.

That’s it! There are currently no other federal OSHA standard (at least none that I could find) that specifically forbids the use of a cell phone while at work.

OSHA did address the potentially hazardous use of cell phones when they partnered with the Department of Transportation to implement a “Distracted Driving Initiative a few years ago. As part of that initiative, OSHA warned employers that they should prohibit any work policy or practice that requires or encourages workers to text while driving. Otherwise they could face a citation for violation of the General Duty Clause (paragraph (5)(a)(1) of the OSH Act of 1970) for failure to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards. One can only assume that OSHA compliance officers may try to use the same strategy when it comes to citing an employer when their employee is found to be using a cell phone while performing complex tasks.

Despite the near absence of federal OSHA standards directly addressing the subject, employers should consider developing and implementing a formal policy regarding the use of cell phones while at work.  As with all newly-implemented policies, employee training on this topic is the key to making sure workers are aware of your policy as well as the reasons it is important to protect worker safety. One tool I found to be effective during training on this topic is a short video clip on the “MythBusters” website that clearly demonstrates talking on a cell phone while driving a car is as dangerous (more dangerous, actually) than driving while under the influence of alcohol. [NOTE: to view this video, click where it says " As seen in "MythBusters: Killer Brace Position" that appears beneath the photo of Adam]

After showing this short video clip to employees and then applying the same principles to the use of a cell phone for talking, texting, and/or emailing while operating dangerous machinery and equipment or while performing any other dangerous task, the workers seemed to be more receptive to changing their bad habits.  Of course, a policy addressing this (or any other) topic is worthless unless it is fully and consistently enforced, so make certain not to let it fade away and be ignored. Can you imagine the ramification if you had a long-standing policy against the use of cell phones during a certain task(s) that was not enforced, and then an accident occurred? That could be even worse for the employer than having no policy at all.

Have you formally addressed the use of cell phones within your organization? If so, has it been readily authorized by workers, or are they allowed to eventually revert to their old habits?  Have you ever been cited by OSHA because an employee using a cell phone while at work? If you would like to share your experiences or other information pertinent to this topic, please do so by clicking here and entering your comment in the “Comments” box. And last but not least, I would like to encourage you to Share this Blog post with others in your Network who might benefit from reading this information. 



Curtis Chambers is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and holds a Master of Science degree in Occupational Safety and Health. He has held numerous leadership positions managing, evaluating, and providing training on workplace safety and health topics at various public organizations and private corporations. Mr. Chambers is currently the President of OSHA Training Services Inc. Visit their website at www.oshatraining.com.  


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