Driving and talking

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The issue of driving while using a mobile is a perennial issue for the media but nothing much changes.  The New York Times on 20 July 2009 carried an article on the latest research which confirms  many previous studies that using a mobile phone while driving increases the risk of an accident.

Pages from 6i17 rawNo US State has banned the practice because social use of mobile phones has become so widespread that any ban is impossible to enforce effectively.

In January 2009, SafetyAtWorkBlog reported on the recommendations from WorkSafe Victoria on the matter.  Even in their guide they would say nothing more than

“recommend that hands free calls be kept to a minimum”.

At some point for most workplace hazards, the evidence outweighs the enforcement difficulties and bans ensue.  It has happened to asbestos, it has happened with smoking, but these are decades after dancing around the most effective control measure – elimination.

Pages from 6i02 v4The industrialised world, in particular, has been wrestling with the hazard of phones and driving for well over a decade.  One report from 2002 said

“Tests carried out by scientists at the Transport Research Laboratory established that driving behaviour is impaired more by using a mobile phone than by being over the legal alcohol limit.”

The footnote to this comment said

“Previous research has shown that phone conversations while driving impair performance. It was difficult to quantify the risk of this impairment because the reference was usually made to normal driving without using a phone. “Worse than normal driving” does not necessarily mean dangerous. There was a need therefore to benchmark driving performance while using a mobile phone to a clearly dangerous level of performance. Driving with a blood alcohol level over the legal limit is an established danger.”

There are always conditions set with research findings but these are sensible and valid.

Pages from 3i13According to a 2004 report by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported by UPI (unable to find a link)

“…estimated 8 percent of all motorists — about 1.2 million drivers — were using cell phones at any given time while driving, up from 6 percent in 2002 and 4 percent in 2000. About 800,000 of those drivers used handsets and not hands-free devices.

  • Handheld cell phone use increased from 5 percent to 8 percent among drivers aged 15 to 24 between 2002 and 2004.
  • Use of cellular-phone handsets increased from 4 percent to 6 percent of female drivers, while the number of men talking on handheld cell phones while driving remained constant at 4 percent.
  • Motorists were more likely to use a cell phone while driving alone, but drivers with children in the vehicle were just as likely to use the phone as those without children in the car.”

For those readers who like dollar figures, the same UPI article stated

“A 2002 study by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of Harvard University’s School of Public Health, found drivers using cell phones caused 1.5 million accidents annually resulting in 2,600 deaths and 570,000 injuries.

Researchers estimated banning cell phone use in vehicles would cost $43 billion a year in lost economic activity.”

Pages from 2003-119[The only HCRA report on the website is is a 2003 study – Cohen, J.T. and Graham, J.D. A revised economic analysis of restrictions on the use of cell phones while driving. Risk Analysis. 2003; 23(1):5-17.]

A September 2003 report from NIOSH lists a range of driver hazards related to work activities and is worth downloading.  Pages 51-555 deal specifically with phone use.

(If any reader knows of a literature review on this topic, please contact SafetyAtWorkBlog)

This workplace hazard has been around for so long that in the opinion of SafetyAtWorkBlog, when someone is driving a work vehicle 100% of their attention should be on the principal task at hand – driving.

Achieving this realistic aim can be helped by

  • not passing on mobile phone numbers when one knows the person is driving.  The low tech alternative of taking a message works.
  • having employees turn off the phone while driving. (The phone does have an OFF switch)
  • not fitting workplace vehicles with hands-free units.
  • reminding employees of the safe driving policies of the business; and
  • enforcing those policies so that employees know that dangerous acts will not be tolerated or compensated by the company.

Above all, employees must be informed of the risks involved with distraction, must be reassured that employers will support safe actions, and must realise the affect on other drivers and their families from their own mistakes.

Kevin Jones

Research review of influenza and noise-induced hearing loss

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The Cochrane Library has long been a good source of research information.  Recently, the library undertook reviews of some of the seasonal influenza intervention and have produced a short podcast on the research.

Also, the Library looked at noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).  The importance of this condition is high due to the damage being irreparable.  In some countries, regular occupational hearing tests are a regulatory requirement in some industries and the research review did find some low-level research that supported hazard control through legislation. The review says

“There is contradictory evidence on the effectiveness of hearing protection and hearing loss prevention programmes. Higher quality prevention programmes and better implementation of legislation are needed.”

There was some support for the efficacy of PPE but training in the proper use of earplugs increased the benefits considerably.  Those readers who are in the mining industry may find the NIHL podcast particularly useful.

These reviews are of  rsearch studies and are not research in themselves, but they are useful summaries of a current state of knowledge on particular matters.  Always look to the original data source if you wish to initiate prevention strategies or, better yet, contact you local OHS regulator and apply for a research grant so that you can generate research that meets the OHS needs of your industry.

Kevin Jones

New research on casino worker risks from secondhand smoke

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The yet-to-be-released August 2009 edition of the American Journal of Public Health has an interesting report into the health risks of casino workers in Pennsylvania from second hand tobacco smoke.  The research report is quite complex for the casual readerr but the increased level of risk to casino workers seems convincing.

According to the report, secondhand smoke

“in Pennsylvania casinos produces an estimated excess mortality of approximately 6 deaths per year per 10000 workers at risk”.

People in the casinos for 8 hours would be breathing air that would match the “unhealthy air” definition of the US Air Quality Index.

The reseacrh concludes

“It is clear, however, that Pennsylvania casino workers and patrons are put at significant excess risk of heart disease and lung cancer from SHS through a failure to include casinos in the state’s smoke-free-workplace law.”

Randy Dotinga wrote for the Health Behavior News Services on the research report and asked questions of a gambling industry representative:

“Holly Thomsen, a spokesperson for the American Gaming Association, a trade group for the casino industry, said its members are committed to “the highest level of safety and comfort” inside casinos.

Casinos serve both smoking and nonsmoking customers, she said, and “we realize that balancing the needs of these two distinct sets of patrons, as well as those of our employees who don’t smoke, is of paramount importance.”

The AJPH article reference is

Repace, J. Secondhand smoke in Pennsylvania casinos: A study of nonsmokers’ exposure, dose, and risk. Am J Public Health 99(8), 2009.

Kevin Jones

Evidence, subjectivity and myth

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There is a big push for occupational safety and health decisions to be made on evidence.  OHS academics in Australia are particularly big on this and there is considerable validity in the lobbying but as academics can have a vested interest in research, the calls are often dismissed.

There is also, around the world, a questioning of the value and validity of the risk assessment process related to workplace safety.  In Europe, in particular, the business groups see risk assessment as a major unnecessary business cost (but then again, how many businesses even perform OHS risk assessments?).  Risk assessment has often been criticised because of its subjectivity.  In some circumstances, risk assessment may perpetuate workplace and safety myths.

In the absence of evidence, myths fill the gap.  Sometimes assessments, investigations, estimates and FOAFs (friend of a friend) add to the tenuous credibility of those myths.

Peter Sandman has talked about dispelling myths through risk communication.  One myth he discusses, the risks of flu vaccinations, is also touched on in an interview with Dr Aaron E. Carroll of the Indiana University School of Medicine on the ABC’s Life Matters program.

OHS professionals must seek evidence on workplace hazards so that their advice is sound but equally, myths must be countered.  The links in the paragraph above, along with the excellent website, www.snopes.com, can provide some assistance in how we can reduce the transmission of myths.

I am a big advocate of the “contrary”.  Only by asking questions about established beliefs and tenets can the flaws in our decision-making be illustrated.  Sometimes this is dismissed as being a “Devil’s Advocate” but the process does not advocate bad behaviours, it questions the basis for established behaviours – a process that many people, organisations AND business find enormously threatening.

As we get older or become socialised, we tend to forget the tale most of us heard as a child, The Emperor’s New Clothes.  This tale should be read regularly to remind us of how the contrary position, the quizzical, can be constructive and sometimes, revolutionary (even though in the tale the Emperor ignores the child’s spoken truth) but still provide evidence.

Kevin Jones