Do you know where your lone workers are?

Lone workers toil by themselves without close or direct supervision. These might include those who work alone in a specific area or building, or mobile workers, who work alone but in a number of locations (such as maintenance).

Assistance is not readily available in an event of critical injury, health impairment, victimization or other life-threatening emergency to a lone worker. Lone workers may be boiler house operators, lab technicians, lone warehouse personnel using forklifts, lone security guard or guards on patrol, maintenance workers called in out-of-hours, drivers of digging equipment in a quarry.

It’s important to identify all areas of your operations to pinpoint safe behaviors, practices and conditions involving lone workers. These areas are easy to dismiss. Frequent comments include:
  • “There is only one person there.”
  • “It’s too far away to observe.”
  • “Joe knows what to do, he’s been there forever.”
Does out of sight mean out of safety?

Lack of info
Using the Internet for research, you can find an abundance of research and articles on most aspects of worker safety. Detailed advice and procedures are available, both from private and public sectors.

Yet, if you type in “lone” or “remote” worker safety, the list diminishes. Most of the information is generated by vendors of communication devices and systems. Most “research” articles originate from the UK or Canada.

The lack of U.S. based articles is surprising.

Meanwhile the incidence of the “lone or remote worker” continues to rise and the dilemma of keeping these workers safe exponentially increases. More people are operating away from the regulated safety of the traditional workplace and more workers are alone due to employee reduction.

It appears that even though factors point toward a significant increase in this type of worker, little or no research has been done regarding the impact that this employment shift is having on safety. Even the availability of the most basic information such as numbers of workers and acquiring adequate information on the proliferation of lone workers is difficult.

Addressing the challenge
Establishing safe work practices for lone workers should be no different from organizing the safety of other employees. Two key concerns are identification of hazards and control measures.

Hazard identification: Identify all the hazards specific to the lone working activity; evaluate the risks (low/medium/high); describe all the existing control measures and identify any further measures required. Consider workplace hazards specific to the workplace/environment that may create particular risks (such as remote areas, laboratories, workshops, confined spaces).

Take into consideration access requirements such as transportation, and type of job, such as work on electrical systems or with hazardous materials. Equipment plays a role as well with manual handling, operating essential/emergency controls, high-risk equipment (saws) and high-pressure equipment.

Consider working circumstances: Is there a history of violence? Is there the opportunity for robbery? Consider medical conditions, disabilities and inexperience of the worker. Examine how work patterns of the lone worker relate to those of other workers in both time and geography.

Control measures: Identify existing control methods, assess their effectiveness and specify additional controls that may be necessary. Pay attention to alternative work methods, training, supervision, protective equipment/devices, etc. Measures include instruction and training; increased communication systems/procedures; increased supervision; increased security; and increased lighting at entrances, exits, parking.

Crucial conversations
Available communication methods are paramount when workers are operating alone or in remote areas where there is no immediate access to other employees. The technology available to help protect lone/remote workers is abundant. Measure reliability and application above cost.

Consider the current length of time the employee will be working alone, what is a reasonable amount of time to be working alone, is it reasonable to be working alone at all, and the time of day the person is alone. Ask:
  • What forms of communication are available?
  • Is it necessary to see the person, or is voice communication adequate?
  • Will the communication systems work in all situations?
  • Is an alternative arrangement needed to cover a person when they are away from a vehicle?
  • Is the work in a remote or isolated location (remote does not have to be far away — a rarely used storage room can be considered)?
  • Is transportation is necessary to get to the location and what mode is used?
  • What and how much safety equipment and devices are needed when using a vehicle and away from the vehicle?
  • Is there an area that people work in periodically and may forget?
  • Is there adequate training and education available and provided for an employee to be able to safely work alone?
Logically, fixed locations are more easily evaluated and technology identified. Relatively simple solutions can be applied depending on environment constraints (such as reception). Fixed locations can also be visited by others more often.

Mobile locations are more complicated in assessing the best methods of communications in emergency situations. But solutions for the mobile worker must be identified and implemented. There is a tendency to address safety for the lone worker in a fixed location while forgetting those employees who are mobile and at many different locations.

Communication options
Some of the simpler devices available for communication include cell phones, pagers and walkie-talkies. But these are manually operated and depend on the employee’s ability to operate them. It is important that communication methods be provided in the event the employee is unable to physically call for help. Some devices have been developed to operate automatically by absence of activity. If a person remains motionless for a period of time, a distress signal is sent to a designated center or person. Technology has been developed to transmit employee identification and location to a designated response center.

In addition to automatic and manual warning devices, additional supervisory communication is advisable, including periodic telephone and site visits with lone or remote workers.

Many lone workers feel that employers do not care what happens to them. It is important that these employees feel that their safety is important to management and the employer. Develop a safe practice/conditions checklist and ask employees from other areas to observe the remote area. Keep in contact with these employees, listen to their concerns, solicit their input to safety procedures and include them in workforce safety discussions and planning. Be sure to thank them for the valuable work they do and continuously encourage them to work safely on their own.