Officials, Employers Act to Curb Distracted Driving

Occupational health and safety professionals who encourage safe driving practices are likely to garner appreciation from their clients and management in their own organizations.

Motor vehicle accidents are a leading cause of work-related injuries and fatalities. Given the ubiquitous use of cell phones and other hand-held electronic devices, reducing distractions such as text messaging while driving has become a cause célèbre for law enforcement, government agencies, safety organizations, and employers. For example, as part of a national campaign, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has introduced an initiative that includes an educational component to prevent occupationally related distracted driving – with a focus on prohibiting text messaging while driving – and enforcement action when there is evidence a company requires employees to send text messages while driving.

“There is no question that new communications technologies are helping businesses work smarter and faster,” said OSHA Director David Michaels, Ph.D. “But getting work done faster does not justify the dramatically increased risk of injury and death that comes with texting while driving.”

OSHA is encouraging employers to examine their driving policies and practices while reminding them that they have a legal obligation to prohibit workplace hazards. In a letter posted on its new distracted driving website, the agency advises employers to immediately remove any incentives that may motivate employees to text while behind the wheel.

“OSHA’s message to all companies whose employees drive on the job is straightforward: It is your responsibility and legal obligation to have a clear, unequivocal, and enforced policy against texting while driving,” Dr. Michaels said. “Companies are in violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act if, by policy or practice, they require texting while driving or create incentives that encourage or condone it, or they structure work so that texting is a practical necessity for workers to carry out their jobs. OSHA will investigate worker complaints, and employers who violate the law will be subject to citations and penalties.”

In a related initiative, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) held its second annual Distracted Driving Summit in September. At the summit, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood kicked off the event by announcing anti-distracted driving regulations for drivers transporting hazardous materials, commercial truck and bus drivers, and rail operators.

New Rules Adopted

Three DOT agencies have published final or proposed rules to prohibit affected employees from sending text messages while operating a commercial motor vehicle (CMV) or being engaged in rail operations.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s rule, effective Oct. 27, says any violation by a CMV driver can be punished with a fine of up to $2,750 and any employer violation with a fine of up to $11,000. The Federal Railroad Administration’s final rule, effective March 28, 2011, codifies most requirements of its Emergency Order No. 26 barring texting by rail employees.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s proposed rule would prohibit texting by drivers during the operation of a motor vehicle containing hazardous materials requiring placards under 49 CFR part 172 or any quantity of selected agents or toxins listed in 42 CFR part 73.

In addition, in light of two recent maritime accidents involving U.S. Coast Guard patrol boats, the NTSB has proposed prohibiting the use of cellular telephones and other wireless devices for personal communication or activity unrelated to operations while engaged in vessel operations.

Thirty states, the District of Columbia and Guam have banned text messaging for all drivers; 12 of these laws were enacted this year. Eight states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands prohibit all drivers from using handheld cell phones while driving.

Other Initiatives

Last year, President Obama issued an executive order prohibiting some 4 million federal workers from sending text messages while driving. Meanwhile, last spring, the DOT launched a Phone in One Hand, Ticket in the Other pilot campaign in Hartford, Conn., and Syracuse, NY, to test whether increased law enforcement efforts combined with public service announcements compel drivers to put down their cell phones. During two week-long periods of increased enforcement, police in Hartford wrote approximately 4,956 tickets and Syracuse police issued 4,446 tickets for violations involving drivers talking or texting on cell phones.

Texting while Driving

Before and after each enforcement wave, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) conducted observations of driver cell phone use and collected public awareness surveys at driver licensing offices in each test and comparison site. Based on these observations and surveys, NHTSA determined that hand-held cell phone use dropped 56 percent in Hartford and 38 percent in Syracuse during the study period. Texting while driving declined 68 percent in Hartford and 42 percent in Syracuse.

“Good laws are important, but we know from past efforts to curb drunken driving and promote seatbelts that enforcement is the key,” Secretary LaHood said at the Distracted Driving Summit.

The DOT also has been working with the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS) to engage the private sector in the promotion of anti-distracted driving policies in the workplace. NETS, which was created by NHTSA, is an employer-led public-private partnership dedicated to improving the safety and health of employees by preventing traffic crashes. The DOT and NETS reported that nearly 1,600 U.S. companies and organizations have already adopted distracted driving policies that apply to approximately 10.5 million workers nationwide. An additional 550 organizations have committed to adopting policies that will cover another 1.5 million employees within the next 12 months.

Earlier this year, the National Safety Council issued a white paper describing the risks of talking on a cell phone while driving. The paper, Understanding the distracted brain: Why driving while using hands-free cell phones is risky behavior, describes how drivers who use cell phones have a tendency to “look at” but not “see” up to 50 percent of the information in their driving environment. A form of inattention blindness occurs, which results in drivers having difficulty monitoring their surroundings, seeking and identifying potential hazards, and responding to unexpected situations, researchers said.

Interestingly, a study on passenger and cell phone conversations in simulated driving environments (Psychol Appl. 2008 Dec;14(4):392-400) found that the number of driving errors was higher when using a cell phone. In passenger conversations, more references were made to traffic, and the production rate of the driver and the complexity of speech dropped in response to increased traffic.

To learn

Climate Change Advisory

In a joint letter, 120 leading public health organizations and experts – including the American Public Health Association, the American Nurses Association and the American Medical Association – urge Congress to protect the public’s health by allowing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to move forward with new rules to reduce pollution that contributes to global climate change. 

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DOT Revises Drug Testing Rules

The Department of Transportation revised parts of 49 CFR, Part 40, Procedures for Transportation Workplace Drug and Alcohol Testing Programs, effective Oct. 1. Most of the changes and additions involve laboratory procedures, drugs for which testing is conducted, and cut-off levels. Significant changes include:

  • MDMA (Ecstasy) will be a target analyte in the amphetamines screening assay, with confirmation testing for MDMA, MDA, and MDEA.
  • Lower cut-off levels for cocaine and amphetamines.
  • Mandatory initial testing for heroin: The target analyte 6-acetylmorphine (6-AM) will be added to the opiates screening test.

The changes also affect Medical Review Officers (MROs). Under the revised rules, MROs must be re-qualified, including passing an examination given by an MRO training organization every five years. The final rule eliminates a requirement for MROs to take 12 hours of continuing education every three years. In addition, several other review requirements are clarified in the revised regulation. Refer to the Aug. 16, 2010, Federal 

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Drug Exposure Hazards

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has added 21 drugs to a notice on precautions for handling drugs that may pose carcinogenic, reproductive, or other serious occupational risks. 

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Equal Employment

Lawsuit Filed The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is suing to stop United States Steel Corp. from randomly testing probationary employees for alcohol use. The lawsuit, filed in a Pittsburgh federal court, alleges a diabetic employee was fired for violating the company’s alcohol policy after two breath tests given 15 minutes apart showed positive results. Doctors have determined that people with diabetes can sometimes falsely test positive for alcohol because the disease alters their body chemistry. The EEOC wants the judge to order U.S. Steel to end “random, suspicion-less alcohol testing” at all facilities because it deprives affected probationary employees of equal employment opportunities.

Health Care

Industry Trends Cleveland is one of 12 communities in the country subject to periodic Community Tracking Study site visits, which are jointly funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Institute for Health Care Reform. The Center for Studying Health System Change has been tracking these communities since 1996. A new report, Cleveland Hospital Systems

Expand Despite Weak Economy, shows:

  • Ongoing capacity expansions as Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals compete for well-insured patients and physician loyalty, particularly in suburban areas, even as the local economy falters and the population declines.
  • The continued shifting of health care costs from employers to employees, including greater use of high-deductible health insurance plans.
  • A safety net system protected in the short run by federal stimulus funds but threatened in the longer run by ongoing state budget woes and the weak local economy.

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Health Centers Funded

The Department of Health and Human Services awarded more than $727 million in grants from the Affordable Care Act to help upgrade 143 community health centers. The funds will support the construction and renovation of community health centers, and it will extend access to another 745,000 underserved patients, according to an HHS press release. 

Lead Exposure Precaution

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Lead RRP (40 CFR, Part 745, Subpart E) now requires contractors performing renovation, repair, and painting projects that disturb lead-based paint in homes, childcare facilities and schools built before 1978 to be certified and follow specific work practices to prevent lead contamination.

‘Popcorn Lung’ Award

A factory worker suffering from “popcorn lung” was awarded $30.4 million in a lawsuit filed against the supplier of diacetyl, a chemical found in butter-flavored microwave popcorn. The award is believed to be the largest yet in a lawsuit involving that condition, attorneys for the plaintiff said. An appeal is anticipated. 

Reforms Found Constitutional 

In the first ruling on the multi-state lawsuit against health reform, a U.S. District Judge in Detroit sided with the Obama administration in rejecting a claim that requiring Americans to buy health insurance is unconstitutional. “The economic burden due to the individual mandate is felt by plaintiffs regardless of their specific financial behavior,” Judge George Steeh said in his ruling. “The [Affordable Care] Act does not make insurance more costly, [and] in fact the contrary is expected; rather the Act requires plaintiffs to purchase insurance when they otherwise would not have done so.”

Sick Plane Debunked

An aircraft cabin poses no more of a health threat to passengers than if they were sitting in a movie theater or subway, according to the National Research Council. On most trans-Atlantic jets, for example, air is filtered through hospital-grade filters that are designed to remove 99.97 percent of bacteria and tiny particles that carry viruses. Cabins are also separated into ventilation systems covering every seven rows to limit the spread of germs.

Texas RTW Outcomes

A report on return-to-work outcomes in the Texas workers’ compensation system shows improvement since 2004 in how quickly injured employees get back to their jobs. The improvement may reflect reforms enacted five years ago, observers said. The percentage of injured workers returning to work within six months after injury reportedly rose from 74 percent in 2004 to 80 percent in 2008. The use of treatment guidelines was cited as one reason for improved medical and return-to-work outcomes. 

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OSHA Update

Grants Awarded: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has awarded $2.75 million in one-year grants to 16 organizations to provide training on topics including nanotechnology, green jobs, work zone safety, confined spaces, fall protection, beryllium exposure, and landscaping/tree service injury prevention. Visit

On-Site Consultation Policy: A notice published in the Sept. 3 Federal Register proposes changes in regulations governing the agency’s On-site Consultation Program, which offers employers free advice on the development of safety and health management systems. The proposal would give the agency more latitude in selecting companies qualified for consultative services. 

State-run Programs Scrutinized: OSHA has concluded an Enhanced Federal Annual Monitoring and Evaluation (EFAME) of state-run OSH programs in 25 states and territories. The evaluation was conducted in response to a 2009 investigation that revealed serious operational deficiencies in Nevada’s program. States were given 30 days to provide a formal response. Refer to

Top Violators: Scaffolding rule violations topped the list again this fiscal year, followed by fall protection and hazard communication violations. Meanwhile, an audit of 49,192 OSHA inspections of non-federal employers conducted between July 2007 and June 2009 resulted in 142,187 citations and $523.5 million in penalties that were reduced by $351.2 million (67 percent), according to an audit conducted by the Inspector General’s Office. “OSHA needs to evaluate the impact and use of hundreds of millions of dollars in penalty reductions as incentives for employers to improve workplace safety and health,” auditors said. The audit found OSHA has not effectively evaluated the impact of the reductions. To view the report and OSHA’s response,


Whistleblower Report: In response to a new Government Accountability Office report, Whistleblower Protection: Sustained Management Attention Needed to Address Long-standing Program Weaknesses, OSHA will require all investigators and their supervisors to complete mandatory investigator training over the next 18 months. 

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