The City of Winnipeg recently implemented a policy requiring paramedics and firefighters to put away their personal cell phones while on the job. The policy was put in place to ensure that important legislation including the Highway Traffic Act and the Personal Health Information Act are adhered to by employees of the Winnipeg Fire and Paramedic Service.

A Case of Applied Common Sense

In the case of paramedics and firefighters, it seems like a simple case of applied common sense that an employer would feel a need to restrict the use of personal cell phones.

Could you imagine a typical call if such a policy was not in place?

“Hey sweetheart, I’ll pick up the kids from daycare and pick up a pepperoni pizza on the way home after we get this stubborn apartment building blaze under control… oops gotta go, my Platoon Chief is coming.”

In other cases, it’s not always as easy for employees to understand the reasons an employer might want to restrict employee use of personal cell phones or other personal communication devices in the workplace.

Reasons for Restricting Cell Phones in the Workplace

Cell phones and other devices are rapidly becoming the primary way people communicate. Many employees mistakenly believe that it is their right to have and use their personal cell phone or other devices in the workplace. There is no such right. The employer can implement reasonable rules prohibiting the use and possession of cell phones during working hours and in the workplace.

There are a number of legitimate business reasons an employer might want to restrict the use and even possession of personal cell phones or other personal communication devices in the workplace. These include:

-    The safety of employees when driving or operating vehicles
-    The safety of employees when operating equipment and machinery
-    Promoting productivity, quality and efficiency
-    Ensuring privacy of employees and others
-    Protecting proprietary processes or methods
-    Maintaining confidential customer or other important business information
-    Liability for damage and repair to such devices

With all workplace rules and policies, an employer has a right to enforce employee compliance. An employer may take appropriate corrective actions up to and including termination of employment for failure to comply with policies and rules relating to personal cell phone use or possession in the workplace.

Tips for Employers

Given the pervasive use of personal cell phones and similar devices, it is imperative that employers clearly establish, communicate and consistently apply policies and rules relating to the use and possession of such devices in their workplace.
Develop a policy that addresses the specific and unique nature of your workplace. Ensure that your policy addresses the reasons for the restrictions on use and possession. If the reasons for restrictions relate to safety, productivity or other legitimate concerns, clearly state them in your policy.

Be clear and specific in what is and what is not permitted in your workplace. Avoid policy provisions that are unclear. For example, do not use terms like, “reasonable use of your personal cell phone during working hours is permitted.” Ambiguous parameters like this will lead to confusion and uncertainty.

Consider that practically all cell phones and other devices contain high definition photo and video capabilities. Ensure that your policy clearly addresses the use of photo or video image capturing and transmitting devices related to and in your workplace.

Help honest employees stay honest. From time to time every employee will face emergent and serious personal or family circumstances. Serious illnesses of family members or other serious emergencies can and will arise. Ensure that your policy clearly addresses how employees can be contacted in the workplace in the event of serious family and related emergencies. An open dialogue with employees surrounding such circumstances is essential.

It is always wise to consult and involve employees in the development of such workplace policies.

As smart phone numbers continue to grow, the rules and regulations surrounding their usage in your workplace will become even more essential. Clear, well-communicated rules are imperative.