Social media sites cause safety issues

Daniel MacEachern
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Construction safety association meeting focuses on mobile devices

Mandy Woodland (left) and Anna Cook speak at the Newfoundland and Labrador Construction Safety Association general meeting Thursday afternoon at the Sheraton Hotel in St. John’s. — Photo by Daniel MacEachern/The Telegram

The agenda for the Newfoundland and Labrador Construction Safety Association’s general meeting Thursday contained many expected items: seminars on changes to the occupational healthy and safety system, new technologies in hearing protection, a first-hand account of tragedy and prevention.

But an afternoon session at the Sheraton Hotel on social media seemed to stick out. What do Facebook and Twitter have to do with safety in the construction industry?

Lawyers Anna Cook and Mandy Woodland, a partner and associate, respectively, at Cox and Palmer, rattled off case after case of accidents caused by people’s distraction with their cellphones — checking Facebook and Twitter pages and texting friends. In New Brunswick, a construction worker on his cellphone steps in front of a half-tonne truck. A train collision in California kills 25 when an engineer distracted by text messaging runs a red light.

“While the technology is new, the issues are the same. My family business is in trucking, and I remember the days when the cellphones in the truck were a handset attached to a big bag that you had to carry around,” said Woodland. “No different today, with people on an iPhone or a BlackBerry or a really small cellphone, in terms of the issues that it creates for safety, just that it’s so much more prevalent. So now almost everyone in the workplace is probably carrying a cellular phone on some level if they’re allowed to have it on them, and so that creates just more prevalent safety issues.”

Woodland said she doesn’t generally advocate bans on mobile devices in the workplace — such prohibitions are usually not realistic or prudent, she said — but she said workplaces that are especially safety-conscious, such as construction sites, are different, especially when employers have a legal obligation to create and maintain safe working environments.

“That includes having clear, unequivocal and enforced policies against the hazards of using mobile devices while working in safety-sensitive jobs,” she said. There are two main kinds of risk, she added: distraction and entanglement.

“Using mobile devices are distracting not just because they require attention to operate, but also because the conversation or the activity or whatever you’re doing engages your mind on something else, other than the job at hand,” she said. “Devices can get tangled in machinery or interfere with the proper use of personal protective equipment. And that’s probably one of the big ones, when people have a hands-free Bluetooth earpiece or something that can interfere your proper safety headgear or ear protection.”

It’s crucial for employers to have Internet-use policies — and no matter what they decide, whether to ban the use of sites like Facebook at work, to make sure employees know the rules, and to make sure the rules are enforced, said Cook.

Twitter: TelegramDaniel

Organizations: Newfoundland and Labrador Construction Safety Association, Sheraton Hotel, Bluetooth

Geographic location: California, New Brunswick

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