Boeing limits workers’ use of smartphones, iPods

EVERETT — Work in a Boeing Co. plant? Take out your ear buds and stop texting.

The aerospace giant adopted new safety standards last month for operations, production and transportation work areas. The new rules prohibit listening to music with ear buds or headphones, limit use of handheld electronic devices such as smartphones and require safety glasses and reflective clothing.

The new standards are about safety, according to Boeing. But some shop floor workers say it has more to do with efficiency.

“You’ve got people just playing games on their phones or wasting time on Facebook,” said a worker at Boeing’s Everett plant near Paine Field. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to publicly discuss the policy.

Now, workers who want to use electronic devices have to go to marked safe zones away from assembly lines.

“A safety zone is an area where people still need to be aware, but the standards don’t apply,” said Katie Zemtseff, a Boeing spokeswoman. “So, people can take off their glasses, talk on the phone and listen to music.”

The company started testing the new standards at 25 sites, including Boeing’s 777 line in Everett, at the beginning of the year.

Previously, safety requirements varied by site, she said.

Once upon a time, Boeing actually issued headphones with built-in AM-FM radios at some sites.

Workers can still listen to music on radios, just not with headphones.

The change wasn’t prompted by a rise in accidents. “We’re just always looking to increase our safety,” Zemtseff said.

“There’s more ability to be distracted when everybody has a cellphone,” she said.

Walking and texting around an assembly line, for example, might have tragic and expensive consequences.

But so can walking with your hands in your pockets, said Mark Graban, a vice-president at KaiNexus, an Austin, Texas-based software firm that works with companies to improve safety and increase productivity. If you trip with your hands in your pockets, you are less likely to catch yourself.

So both habits — walking while texting and walking with your hands in your pockets — are banned at Toyota’s plant in San Antonio, Texas, he said.

“Mobile devices are potential distractions from things like Facebook, but they’re also increasingly productivity enhancers,” Graban said.

It is a management issue, not a technology problem. Engaged, motivated employees will focus on safety and productivity, he said.

“If people are screwing around and wasting time, it’s not a smartphone issue. The question is, ‘Why are people screwing around and wasting time?’”

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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