Impairment at Work: Cell Phones Negatively Influence Your Cognitive Abilities

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The National Safety Council sets aside June of every year to mark National Safety Month (#NSM), and for National Safety Month 2019 they’re putting a new focus on each of the four weeks in June: Hazard Recognition; Slips, Trips, and Falls; Fatigue; and Impairment.  We’ve written an article and/or created free safety material in keeping with each of these weekly themes, and this article is our contribution to the NSM week 4 focus on impairment.

You might also want to go back to check out our articles on Hazard Recognition Training; Slips, Trips, and Falls (there’s a free fall prevention toolbox talk checklist for you there); and Fatigue at Work (learn about creating a Fatigue Risk Management Plan). Plus, the NSC has some great materials at their website to check into.

Impairment at work is a big issue, of course. There are many ways to be impaired, as you know. You’ll see lots of materials on drugs, including opioids, and rightly so. You’ll see lots of materials on on alcohol, and that’s a serious problem too. Stress and mental illness will be topics that get deserved consideration.

We figured we’d take a look at impairment from cell phone use, and perhaps come at the issue  of cell phones from a somewhat unexpected perspective. Read on if you’d like to learn more.

Cell Phones Negatively Influence Your Cognitive Abilities

When you think of an article about cell phone usage and impairment for National Safety Month, you might first think about distracted driving (of an automobile, truck, or even a forklift). And there’s good reason for that, as this CDC page on Distracted Driving shows. And the problem is just drivers using their cell phones–pedestrians using their phones are also distracted and also create accidents, as this NSC page on Pedestrian Safety shows.

But having your cell phone around while you’re working can reduce your cognitive abilities, too. What do we mean?

A recent article at the Harvard Business Review, titled Having Your Smart Phone Nearby Takes a Toll on Your Thinking, explains recent research studies that asked nearly 800 people to complete relatively simple tasks designed to test their cognitive abilities at the moment.

The study participants were split into three groups. The first group was told to leave their cell phones in front of them, face down on the table. The second group was asked to put their cell phones in their pockets or bags. And the third group was asked to put their cell phones away in a different room. In all cases, the cell phones volume, ringers, and notifications were turned off.

You may see where this is going, but the results are striking. The people who put their cell phones in another room performed best on the cognitive tests. The people who put their cell phones in their pockets or bags performed next best. And the people who had their cell phones on the table scored the worst on the tests for their cognitive abilities.


The reduction in cognitive abilities associated with having your cell phone on the table was similar to the drop caused by lacking sleep (see our article on fatigue at work to see what a real issue that is).

The study went on to show a relationship between people who feel very “connected” to their cell phones and those who saw the greatest negative effects on their cognitive abilities. Here’s how the authors (Kristen Duke, Adrian Ward, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten Bos) put it:

Our data also show that the negative impact of smartphone presence is most pronounced for individuals who rank high on a measure capturing the strength of their connection to their phones — that is, those who strongly agree with statements such as “I would have trouble getting through a normal day without my cell phone” and “It would be painful for me to give up my cell phone for a day.” In a world where people continue to increasingly rely on their phones, it is only logical to expect this effect to become stronger and more universal.

If the increased chances of dying in an auto accident while driving distracted (or of being a distracted pedestrian who walks into an accident) aren’t enough to make you reconsider your cell phone usage, maybe this study and the reduction in your cognitive abilities will be.

But of course, it’s not easy to change, is it? It’s not easy to quit using your cell phone cold turkey or even greatly reduce your use. Want some tips? This HBR article titled If You Want to Use Your Phone Less, First Figure out Why has some interesting thoughts.

Good lucking cutting down your cell phone usage and be safe. Please feel free to download our free JHA Guide below, too. 

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Job Hazard Analysis Guide

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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. He's worked in training/learning & development for 25 years, in safety and safety training for more than 10, is an OSHA Authorized Outreach Trainer for General Industry OSHA 10 and 30, has completed a General Industry Safety and Health Specialist Certificate from the University of Washington/Pacific Northwest OSHA Education Center and an Instructional Design certification from the Association of Talent Development (ATD), and is a member of the committee creating the upcoming ANSI/ASSP Z490.2 national standard on online environmental, health, and safety training. Jeff frequently writes for magazines related to safety, safety training, and training and frequently speaks at conferences on the same issues, including the Washington Governor's Safety and Health Conference, the Oregon Governor's Occupational Safety and Health Conference, the Wisconsin Safety Conference, the MSHA Training Resources Applied to Mining (TRAM) Conference, and others.

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