The importance of equipment operators focusing on work & forgetting the distractions

A ringing cell phone, family issues, the weekend fishing trip, text messages, ball game scores, funny pet videos, the glare of the sun—the list goes on and on. Sometimes, these distractions come from external sources, such as a phone call or text message. Other times, they are internal distractions, such as medical concerns, personal issues or plans for a future event. But it only takes a momentary distraction for one’s life to be permanently altered—meaning equipment operators have to be on their game 100 percent of the time.

External Distractions

Cellphones are an excellent way to communicate, and are a very useful tool to have in one’s arsenal, but experience has shown that they also have a reputation for being abused. Any tool, no matter how useful, can be dangerous when not properly employed. Before technology became such an integral part of everyday life, equipment operators might have a radio in the cab, perhaps to listen to a ballgame or background music. Even this might be distracting, or it might prevent the operator from hearing something amiss with the machinery that could have been detected. Now, day in and day out, people are distracted by their phones.

Cellphones have gone beyond the simple use of talking to another person. Now, they are minicomputers in our hands. Email can be checked by the minute and whole conversations take place via text, when a simple phone call would have worked. We can be plugged in 24/7 through social media. We might feel the need to be entertained through streaming videos, or reach the next level in a game. We might listen to music directly through earbuds to block out other noises or dim the hum of the engine.

But when operating a crane or heavy machinery, this can have dangerous consequences. Don’t take the risk of bumping a lever in an effort to take the phone out and answer a call or skip a song. Don’t ever take your eyes off the load or signal person to read a text. When safety standards are ignored, serious accidents can happen.

Not only is this sound advice, but it is also the law. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) forbids the use of a cellphone while operating a crane in 1926 Subpart CC 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 cellphone 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.”

Due to the dangers associated with working on or around cranes, this must be enforced by all companies that own cranes, as well as the contractors and operators who use them. While these OSHA regulations are specific to crane operations, the use of a cellphone by other types of heavy equipment operators should be prohibited as well.

Employees who are not operating heavy equipment, but are working around it, should make sure to work distraction free, too—keeping their mind on the task and the environment in which they are working. They should only use cellphones when they have stepped away from the active jobsite, keep their earbuds out and wear proper hearing protection when warranted.

Internal Distractions

Another area where distractions occur, but cannot be as easily seen as a cellphone in the hand is the mind. Mental and emotional distractions are probably the most easily dismissed types of distractions, but they can make a big difference in the effectiveness of an operator and the safety on the jobsite.

Operators must learn to “put their junk in the trunk” every day when they come to work. They need to clear their head of all the emotional distractions, figuratively taking the related thoughts from their brain and putting them in their vehicle until the shift has ended. Mental distractions do not belong on the site or in the operator’s seat.

For example, John is the best crane operator on the job. He made this lift yesterday, the day before and the day before that. But today, he seems off his game. It appears that everything is fine on the outside, but the way he is operating says there might be something else going on outside of the crane. What should be done?

  • Ignore it and let him keep operating, hoping no one gets hurt
  • Check in with him and see if he insists that he keep working
  • Ask him to tell you what is going on and ask him to push through
  • Wait to see if he says something
  • Take him out of the seat of the crane for an hour or two
  • Assign the lift to someone else

While some of these options may seem a little out of the ordinary, once a concern has been recognized, the site supervisor should approach the situation with a balance of managing risk and common sense to make the best decision for the safety of the entire jobsite. Maybe the supervisor should step in and relieve John of his operating duties until he has the chance to clear his head by putting in a relief operator for a couple of hours or a day. Once John is back to normal, he can get back in the seat of the crane and continue with his work. The only wrong answer is to ignore it and hope nothing happens.

Looking at it from another perspective: In a baseball game, when a pitcher is rocked by an opposing team or loses his edge, the manager comes out and talks with him and, more often than not, the pitcher hands the ball to the manager and the relief pitcher comes in. It doesn’t mean the original pitcher is a poor pitcher. It just means he lost his mojo for the day, or his head isn’t in the game. Sometimes managers want to believe in their players so much that they leave them in too long, and the game is lost.

A site supervisor may need to take the same approach with an operator because he/she may have lost his/her edge. Depending on how the situation is handled, the operator can come back strong, once his/her head is clear. A greater hazard can be created by intimidating, chastising or embarrassing him/her, especially in front of peers. Regardless, you certainly don’t want an environment where good operators fear for their job or a loss of pay because of external distractions that create safety concerns.

In the standards, the only place mental distractions are alluded to is the ASME B30.5 Chapter 5 Qualifications for Operators, which requires an operator to pass a physical examination that meets the criteria: “No evidence of physical defects or emotional instability that could render a hazard to the operator or others …” While an operator may have passed the physical exam and met the qualifications, is he/she emotionally stable? Is emotional stability a concern in John’s case of a temporary distraction? Any operator with a true passion for safety and concern for others on the site should know to either step down and excuse himself/herself for a day or so, or to mentally put the distraction aside until the work is finished.

Planning for Success

In order to mitigate both external and internal distractions, one must not only be able to recognize concerns, but also have a plan in place to address them when necessary. Where does the organization stand on the use of cellphones by operators and crews? Is there a policy against it? Do employees abide by it? Does each worker manage himself/herself, or is it seen as a nonissue? What about emotionally distracted employees, how are these situations handled?

Preemptively talk to employees and operators about the importance of keeping their head in the game. A little preparation before encountering of these types of diversions will help the jobsite run smoother and stay a safer place.