Rules to multi-task by

The Information Super Highway, which was formally ushered in less than 20 years ago through the dynamic information technology platform and global network of the Internet (worldwide web), has certainly transformed the lives of citizens of God’s universe, and in particular planet Earth.

With the plethora of communication systems, such as cellular phones, wireless communications, text messages, instant messages, electronic mail, VOIP and a multiplicity of search engines etc., to name a few, humans are seemingly living in the state of stress and with an almost constant rush of adrenalin…just to keep up.

One of the coping strategies we use as humans is multi-tasking…a very useful skill when (or if) used in a wise, holistic, and balanced manner. It seems however that our multi-tasking to keep up with the Information Super Highway is also causing potential safety and health hazards on our physical roads and highways.

One particular such trend is drivers, of all ages, nationalities and genders, who are busying themselves in seemingly deep cellular telephone while driving on our busy roads!

While many of us – and even the author at times – are guilty of this practice, it is not a recommended multi-tasking combination, and may have already contributed to traffic accidents and even fatalities.

Of greater concern are the drivers of company or employer-owned vehicles including: passenger buses, dump trucks (laden and empty), heavy equipment (backhoes), garbage trucks, petroleum and gases transportation vehicles, and others. I have personally seen some operators of those heavy equipment assets, driving while having one hand occupied with a cellular telephone to one ear…..even on roundabouts!

As a consultant I assist clients with developing relevant workplace policies and procedures, and recently I am being asked about enforceable policies in relation to cellular telephone use while driving company vehicles, or private vehicles during working hours. I have done some research on the subject and due to my personal concern (as a road user and family and friend to so many other road users), I thought that it may be useful to share some thoughts with all employers and employers, through your publication, on a pro-bono basis. I also have many friends and associates who also own businesses and they may be exposed to legal liability in the case of accidents or injuries from such unsafe practices, especially if negligence can be proven.

In the case of cellular phone use, where it is a company/employer provided cellular phone, or where the employee is operating or is assigned a company vehicle or other equipment, it is fairly easy to mandate and enforce a policy on ‘cellular phone use while driving or operating employer assets (vehicles, equipment etc.)’. This can be done through having clear policies and practices for care and operation of employer assets, and occupational health and safety. As a companion measure, it is also important that such policies are also enshrined in employee policies or procedures manuals or handbooks, which the employee must sign as acknowledgement of agreement; and also enshrining those policies in the employee’s employment contract and job description.

Here is a sample policy, which may be adopted by agreement between the employer and employee:

‘Employees who are assigned cellular phones for business or official use, who are assigned vehicles or equipment for similar use, or whose job responsibilities include regular or occasional driving (even if on a fuel/mileage reimbursement system), are expected to refrain from using the cellular phone while driving or operating equipment.

‘Regardless of the circumstances, employees are expected to pull off to the side of the road and safely stop the vehicle before placing or accepting a call, particularly if on business or if assigned an employer cellular phone or vehicle or equipment. Employees whose job descriptions entail regular driving, for example into the out-lying districts, will be provided with hands-free equipment to facilitate the efficient provisions of this policy.

‘Employees whose job descriptions do not necessarily include driving or equipment operation as a responsibility, but who are issued with a cellular phone or assigned an employer vehicle for use, are also required to abide by these policies and provisions. Under no circumstances are employees allowed to place themselves at risk to fulfil business needs.

‘Employees who are charged with traffic violations, which are proven to be caused by negligence or careless driving as a result of the use of their cellular phone while driving, will be solely responsible for all liabilities that result from such actions. Violations of this policy will be subject to the highest forms of discipline, including termination’

The above policy can be adopted and enforced in cases of company or employer issued equipment. However, in the case of personal cellular phones or employee owned vehicles used during working hours, and in our present statutory environment where there is no prohibition in our traffic law against such practices, how can employers mandate some level of compliance with safe cellular phone use while driving? In my opinion, a similar holistic culture of care can also be promoted by enshrining these work rules or expectations in employee policy and procedures handbooks as well as in employment contracts. In my view, complainants could not successfully argue against the imposition of such fair rules, as the employer is entitled to include them in the statement of working conditions (or employment contract) as provided for in Section 6 (2) (a) of the Labour Law (2007 Revision). Similar powers can also be obtained from Section 60 (c) in Part VIII (Health, Safety and Welfare at Work), of the Labour Law (2007 Revision). Of course, an exemplary corporate citizen and an employer of choice may also choose to provide employees with, or subsidize the purchase of, hands-free devices such as a Bluetooth ear piece, as an additional benefit and an incentive for compliance.

I trust that your readers may be guided by the foregoing thoughts, and if adopted I believe that we could have some assurance of a healthier workforce and workplace, safer roads/highways, as well as more responsible multi-tasking in the inevitable evolution of our ‘small Island big city’ culture.

Mario E. Ebanks