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Businesses take texting precautions

Better safe than sorry is a stance construction companies in Wisconsin are taking when it comes to texting on job sites.

While most have policies that prohibit personal cell phone use on the job, some have specifically implemented texting bans as well in the wake of the state’s recent law making it illegal to drive and text.

“It’s just too dangerous,” said Paul Reed, president of Harmony Construction Management Inc., Madison. “They made it a law not to do it while driving, so why would you do it on a job site?”

But a company policy won’t insulate an employer from liability in the event of an accident involving an employee texting on the job, said construction lawyer W. Wayne Siesennop of Siesennop & Sullivan, Milwaukee.

Under the state’s worker’s compensation laws, employers are responsible for on-the-job injuries to employees or other individuals.

Siesennop suggested a texting ban is more beneficial from a job efficiency standpoint and some companies have written texting policies into contracts as a result.

“It’s not going to insulate companies from liability, because even if there is a violation of a texting policy, worker’s compensation will still provide coverage in an accident,” he said. “But often safety manuals are part of a contract.”

Even prior to the Dec. 1 state law change, Harmony inserted language into its purchasing orders that all employees and construction managers are required to follow the company’s safety policy, which includes zero texting on the job.

Reed said the benefit of a texting policy is that it reduces the odds of on-site accidents, which can translate into insurance policy savings.

“Our record is pretty good and we haven’t had a loss-of-work injury in probably eight years and we’d like to keep it that way,” he said. “We just don’t want it.”

Absent any specific regulations from the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, companies are on their own to craft policies restricting text messages on job sites.

Some have simply relied on existing cell phone prohibitions in the company handbook, rather than establishing a specific provision for texting.

“Our policy is fairly simple,” said Sara Gorenchan, claims manager for Miron Construction Co. Inc., Neenah. “It’s not allowed, because we don’t allow cell phones on job sites.”

Similarly, Madison-based Stevens Construction Corp. prohibits the use of cell phones by employees at work, but does not have a texting policy for superintendents and project managers, who spend half their time on job sites, said Dennis Lynch, senior vice president.

Lynch acknowledged that could be something worth looking into, though, especially given the recent law change.

“Cell phones have really become an extension of your arm and we use them all day long,” he said. “But we certainly want safety to be our number one concern on the job site.”

Common sense should prevail when deciding whether or not texting on a construction job site is a good idea, said personal injury attorney Paul Scoptur of Aiken & Scoptur SC, Milwaukee.

While that is not always the case, he suggested a black-and-white policy in the company handbook could have its drawbacks.

Scoptur said it is debatable whether in the event of an accident, a company could be found negligent for not having a policy governing texting on the job, but negligence is more likely if there is a policy in place and an employee breaks it.

“If you institute a policy, you are setting it up for someone to violate it,” he said. “So you may be subject to more liability if you created a policy, rather than leave it to an employee’s common sense.”

Jack Zemlicka can be reached at jack.zemlicka@wislawjournal.com.

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