Slip-and-Fall Safety Can Suffer When Employees Carry Smartphones

If you own a business or have a management position, you know how difficult it is to find the balance between holding employees accountable while also making them feel empowered, autonomous, and motivated to optimize their workload.  In multi-level organizations, this problem is magnified because one must supervise their subordinate to ensure that their subordinate is supervising the subordinate’s subordinates. The pointy-headed among us refer to this as the “Principal-Agent Problem” [1], though that sage for the Everyman named Dr. Seuss illustrated the challenge more simply in Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? [2]:

Out west near Hawtch-Hawtch there’s a Hawtch-Hawtcher Bee-Watcher.
His job is to watch…is to keep both his eyes on the lazy town bee.
A bee that is watched will work harder, you see.
Well…he watched and he watched.
But, in spite of his watch, that bee didn’t work any harder. Not mawtch.
So then somebody said, “Our old bee-watching man just isn’t bee-watching as hard as he can.
He ought to be watched by another Hawtch-Hawtcher!
The thing that we need is a Bee-Watcher-Watcher!”

And so it goes, with Bee-Watcher-Watcher-Watchers watching Bee-Watcher-Watchers…

Seuss’s hyperbolic take on this phenomenon dates back to 1973, but it still rings true nearly five decades later. Front-line workers complain about the uselessness of middle managers, while middle-management types wonder why the “big wigs” make all the money while they are the ones keeping the corporate ship on course. There are other jobs that society deems archetypal “watcher” positions, with the workers often cast (fairly or not) as sluggish and inattentive. Consider the parking-lot attendant who must be awoken with a shout from drivers lined up alongside his kiosk; recall the bumbling retail security guard, immortalized in Paul Blart: Mall Cop. [3]

The stakes are often low – basically, it’s a matter of whether the maximum amount of profit accrues up the earnings ladder. Inventory that is embezzled, stolen, or gifted to an employee’s buddies yields no return on investment, but the world keeps turning. But sometimes, the inattentiveness of front-line employees can cost a company big-time. And with smartphone penetration on-track to exceed 70 percent by next year, [4] employers can be certain that their employees will always have something more interesting to monitor than the safety of their workplace.

Consider a supermarket. Depending on how you look at it, a grocery store is either a marvel of modern consumerism or an elaborate booby trap waiting to spring. (It may be both.) As dozens of customers cycle through the store every hour, they move quickly with their hands occupied on shopping carts and their heads spinning with lists, brand preferences, and on-the-fly calculations like whether a 12-ounce can for $1.99 is cheaper than a 16-ounce can for $2.49. (It isn’t.) In the bulk section, they might scatter spherical millet grains on the floor and slink away without telling anyone. In the housewares aisle, they make knock down a bottle of laundry detergent and replace it without realizing that it has a small crack that will, over the twenty minutes, ooze a thin layer of slick, invisible soap over the linoleum floor. In the produce section, a few loose grapes or a shriveled banana may fall off the bunch a customer hauls into their cart, perhaps unnoticed. These abandoned fruits will linger on the ground, obscured by the abutting produce shelves, as they putrefy and become even more slippery.

From just these few illustrations, it should be easy to imagine how slip and fall accidents happen in supermarkets far and wide. Each of these hazards should be addressed by the staff’s consistent, timely attention to the safety conditions of the store. But in this modern age of social media and streaming video at our fingertips, it’s far from a sure bet. The next time you hit the aisles, be sure to keep part of our attention at the floor under your feet!





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