More than 5 billion text messages are sent every day and 1.5 trillion text messages every year. Like most people, you probably engage in this technology. A text message can be a very handy tool to let someone know when you’re running late and to answer/ask a question when you’re not in a position to talk on the phone.

But as the popularity of texting continues to grow, the question begs to be answered: Is this technology increasing or decreasing employee productivity? Results from research at the University of California-Irvine showed that employees took an average of 25 minutes to recover from interruptions before returning to the original task at hand.

What about your employees? Perhaps you’ve never thought of it before, but there is enough research out there to show that texting and cell phone use in the workplace might not be a good idea.

Here’s a look at why you should consider implementing a cell phone policy on-farm.

It is a distraction

Employees should be alert and paying attention while at work. But are they?

Productivity is compromised when employees are talking to their friends, wives, husbands or girlfriends about what they did the night before or what they are planning to do this weekend, says Chris Zoller, extension educator with Ohio State University.

Thousands of dollars could be lost if an employee is distracted and forgets to check for mastitis, dip teats or if milk from a treated cow enters the bulk tank.

Research also shows that incoming messages not only distract, but also lower your intelligence. In 2005 Hewlett-Packard and the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London found that employees distracted by incoming e-mail and phone calls saw a 10-point fall in their IQ — more than twice that found in studies of the impact of smoking marijuana.

More recent work done by Microsoft found that it took 15 minutes for employees to return to serious mental tasks after responding to incoming e-mail or instant messages.

Safety first

Text messaging may not seem like an obvious safety concern, but injury or even death could result if an employee is talking or texting while driving or operating farm equipment. Employees could also endanger others if they are distracted by cell phones, notes Zoller.

People who send text messages while driving are three times more likely to crash than other drivers, and distracted driving accounts for 80 percent of all accidents, reports the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It may also be illegal in your state to text while driving — it has been banned in 30 states so far.

Driving isn’t the only issue. The American College of Emergency Physicians has indicated that teens and young adults are arriving in emergency departments with serious and sometimes fatal injuries because they were not paying attention while texting and tripped and fell on their faces.

Dairies are busy places and employees need to be paying attention at all times, says Anthony Raimondo, agriculture labor law attorney with McCormick Barstow in Fresno, Calif. 

Consider the animals 

Cell phones can also be distracting to cows.

Cows are more sensitive to high-frequency sound. And when a cow is stressed, it will take 20 to 30 minutes for her heartbeat to slow down. Banning cell phones may make it easier to handle or move animals.

There is a time and place for texting, and work is not one of them, says Raimondo.

Beware of “textual” harassment

When establishing text messaging and cell phone policies on-farm, you  should consider updating your sexual harassment and discrimination policies to include text messaging, says Daniel Kaufman, partner at the law firm of Michael Best & Friedrich LLP in Chicago.

Harassment can come in many forms of communication, and it should not be tolerated no matter what form of communication it takes. “People tend to make statements in text messages that they would never think to say in person,” says Kaufman.

Make sure your sexual harassment and discrimination policy covers any electronic form of communication, including texting. You want to make sure that it’s clear to employees that harassment of any kind is prohibited, notes Kaufman.

Implementing a cell phone or texting policy

There is no one-size-fits-all policy, says Anthony Raimondo, agriculture labor law attorney with McCormick Barstow in Fresno, Calif. “You have to tailor your policy to fit the actual practices on the dairy.”

Here are some tips for implementing a new policy.

Put it in writing

Spell out who can and can’t use cell phones and where they can and cannot be used.

Are all employees prohibited from using cell phones, or are they banned only in the milking parlor and animal-care areas? It may be simpler to ban cell phone use across the board, says Raimondo. But you need to let employees know when and where they are allowed to check messages and return phone calls.

The herdsman should be allowed to use a cell phone for emergency cow-side issues, advises Raimondo. But, make sure you put it in the policy so no one can construe it as favoritism.

Translate the policy into the languages spoken by your employees.

Provide training

Meet with employees to introduce the new policy and explain why the policy exists and any disciplinary action that will come from violating the policy. “Employee communication is critical,” notes Raimondo. “Meet with employees before implementing the rule to explain the reasons for the rule and to remind them that they can use their phones during meal and break times.”

Don’t be surprised if employees resist the new policy, says Chris Zoller, extension educator at Ohio State University. “Many of us have become so attached to our cell phones that they may resist an attempt to restrict their use.”

Include in the policy how employees can have messages relayed to them during work hours. “You have to find balance with an employee’s need to communicate outside the dairy,” says Raimondo. “Some dairies are staffed all day; you can provide employees with the office number for emergency phone calls. An office employee can track down the workers on the dairy when needed.” Another option is to provide the herdsman’s phone number in case of emergency.

Radios can also be provided to employees to facilitate communication on-farm.

Consistently enforce the policy

Having a policy but ignoring it can be worse than having no policy at all, notes Raimondo.

Make sure employees understand the consequences of violating the policy. And, like any form of discipline. document it.

Be sure that you follow the rules outlined in the policy. “If you ban cell phones in the milk barn, and then walk into the parlor talking on the phone or take a phone call, you send the wrong message to employees,” says Raimondo. “Follow the rules you set.”

Finally, a properly implemented and enforced cell phone policy may afford the employer some liability protection if an employee violates the stated rules and causes an accident.