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Time to update your company’s cell-phone policy

About 85% of American companies have a written policy that limits workers’ use of cell phones while driving. The goal is to improve employee safety, while also preventing lawsuits from people who are injured by distracted employees.

That’s great – but many of these policies were adopted several years ago, and need to be reviewed now because the legal landscape has changed.

Here are some of the problems with many older policies:

► They’re not inclusive enough. Many older policies prohibit employees from talking on the phone while in a company car, or while using an employer-provided device. That’s good, but an effective policy should also prohibit any business-related phone call while driving, regardless of who owns the car or the phone.

Recently, a major stock brokerage settled a lawsuit for $500,000 after an employee caused a car crash while on the phone. The employee was in his own car driving to a non-work-related event on a Saturday night, and talking on his own personal phone. But he was talking to a company customer at the time.

► They don’t specifically cover texting. Texting while driving is as dangerous (or more dangerous) than talking while driving, and company policies should mention it specifically.

In addition to the potential for lawsuits, OSHA recently warned employers that if they require texting while driving, or if they organize an employee’s work in such a way that texting while driving is a practical necessity, they can face fines of up to $70,000 – even if no one is hurt as a result.

► They don’t prohibit ‘hands-free’ devices. Fumbling with a phone is obviously dangerous, but the mere fact of talking on the phone – even with a “hands-free” device – is enough to distract a driver.

Many company policies created several years ago require employees who talk on the phone while driving to use a hands-free device. But recent evidence has shown that hands-free devices don’t significantly cut down on the danger, and today, a good policy should prohibit all cell phones, even no-hands ones.

Recently, a Texas jury ordered the Coca-Cola company to pay more than $20 million after a Coke employee on the phone didn’t notice that a left-turn signal had changed and drove into traffic, injuring another motorist. Coke’s policy required hands-free devices, and the employee on the phone was using a hands-free device. But the jury still found that Coke was negligent.

Coke pointed out that driving with a hands-free device was permitted by Texas law, but that didn’t sway the jury.

► They don’t include monitoring and enforcement. A cell-phone policy won’t help you much in court if it’s buried in an employee manual or tucked into a personnel file, and the company meanwhile is aware that employees frequently talk on the phone and makes no effort to stop them.

Employees need to be reminded regularly about the policy, and about the disciplinary consequences for violating it. And if employees do violate the policy, the company has to take some action; it can’t just look the other way.

► They don’t go beyond driving. Cell phones are distracting in any situation that requires safety awareness, not just driving. You should consider expanding a cell-phone ban to include forklift operators, warehouse and factory workers, nurses performing patient care, construction workers, anyone operating agricultural equipment, and other employees.

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