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Isolated and at Risk: Why Lone Workers Are More Vulnerable

May 14, 2024
Lone workers are more vulnerable and less visible. That’s why safety professionals need to go the extra mile to make sure all employees, including those who work out in the field or by themselves, have a safe working environment.

In the summer of 2015, a worker died from acute methylene chloride exposure while repairing a bathtub in a public housing complex in Cleveland.

The 30-year-old was working alone at the time. His body was discovered by a resident upon returning home. This fatality could have been avoided if his employer had provided adequate protection and training, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

"This man died tragically and needlessly," said Howard Eberts, OSHA's area director in Cleveland in a press release following the incident. "OSHA recommends alternative, less hazardous chemicals or methods be used to eliminate exposure to methylene chloride. When employers use products containing methylene chloride, they must train workers to protect themselves. They must also provide adequate ventilation, respiratory protection and protective clothing and proper equipment."

While serious injuries and fatalities unfortunately still occur in the workplace, employees who work alone are at greater risk of accident than if they were performing their work alongside others.

Suppose lone workers are employed within the team, such as field operators performing repairs in a remote location. In that case, it is the employer’s responsibility to take every safety step required to protect these people who put themselves in vulnerable circumstances to perform their job.

In other instances, your organization may be required to follow specific occupational health and safety (OHS) legislation, regulations and industry standards in order maintain safety compliance, which will ultimately result in a safer environment for all employees while also building a positive corporate reputation for responsibility.

Let’s look at best practices that can help maintain safety standards and compliance in your workplace, including work environments like the home.

Meet Compliance Requirements

In 1970, President Richard Nixon passed the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act to help protect Americans while at work. It was a landmark moment for worker safety; however, lone worker safety is not specifically addressed in the act or is called out in any other safety legislation in the United States.

Instead, it is covered under OSHA’s General Duty Clause, which requires that employers provide places of employment that are “free from recognized hazards” that could cause harm to their employees, including lone workers. Under the clause, the employers must provide a work environment in which their lone workers can perform their jobs safely and in circumstances where they can request help if they need it.

Meanwhile, in Canada the Westray Law holds organizations criminally responsible “to an offense where the offense charged is one that requires proof of negligence (e.g., criminal negligence causing death (section 220) or bodily harm (section 221)).” In order to maintain compliance in Canada, the employer must “take all reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm to the person performing the work or task, and to any other person” requiring innovative safety measures for lone workers. For example, in British Columbia, a community has taken a co-op safety approach to mitigating working-alone hazards.

Overall, the lack of lone worker-specific legislation and regulations makes them more vulnerable than other employees with protections and protocols not robust enough to address the complex occupational challenges they face. Lone workers face additional risks by the very nature of showing up to work each day. They can also find it significantly more difficult to request help in an accident as well as receive adequate help or care if they are hurt. This, in turn, affects the outcome of the stressful situation and circumstances.

In many instances, the risk factors lone workers face can be mitigated by the employer, co-workers and workers themselves. And, whether or not safety legislation and regulations exist in your area and industry, every employer and organization has a moral responsibility to protect their people—especially those who work in vulnerable circumstances alone.

Assess Lone Worker Risks and Hazards

To build a safe work environment, employers must perform a comprehensive hazard assessment of current and potential occupational threats that could hurt lone workers.

Different work environments present unique safety risks and challenges that require special considerations for people working alone. These hazard assessments must be performed by managers along with the lone workers—and on a regular basis to stay updated on any changes to the work environment.

Managers and lone workers must also examine the physical environment and the circumstances surrounding their lone work as well as activities performed. These assessments should be conducted together before, and periodically during, the work assignment so that workers can share what occupational dangers they face or feel uncomfortable working around. Lone workers may often feel unsafe while at work but are not sure how to broach the subject.

In a recent survey conducted by TrackPlus, approximately one in five (19%) lone worker professionals report having an accident and struggled to get help, while almost half (44%) stated they felt unsafe while at work. The survey was completed by 250 lone workers and individuals responsible for the safety and supervision of lone workers in North America.

Once documented, hazard assessments must be viewable by everyone on the worksite, allowing complete transparency and accessibility. Then it’s time to get to work on eliminating or mitigating those hazards.

Develop Safety Policies and Procedures

Following safety hazard and risk identification, safety policies and their corresponding procedures can then be developed. A safety policy acts as a guide for specific safety measures, including safety protocols and procedures.

In this case, you need to create a lone worker safety policy tailored to your organization’s needs and provide standard operating procedures to keep lone workers safe. To help develop lone worker policies and procedures, you also need to create a safety committee or designate a safety officer to manage and update the documents as needed.

When developing a lone worker safety policy, look at other policies within your safety program, finding opportunities where they can complement each other. In some cases, a lone worker policy shares similarities with other existing safety policies, in that the objectives are the same such as working-in-heat or safe-driving polices. However, due to their unique circumstances, lone workers may face challenges requesting emergency help and employers may face challenges providing immediate help to those remote people; a detailed lone worker safety policy can help address that.

Provide Training and Education

In order to fully educate employees on proper safety protocols and practices, safety training and other resources must be provided to all impacted employees. The engaging activity of safety training ingrains safety behaviors more effectively as well as strengthens relationships amongst staff. With the remote nature of lone workers, safety professionals may need to bring OHS training to these people in order to reinforce and refresh essential safety skills and education. While that can be a challenge, there is much at stake—and the effort and energy is worth it.

The safety objectives outlined in your policy can direct the training topics and areas essential for your lone workers’ safety, such as proper personal protective equipment (PPE) or emergency response. Additionally, educational safety resources like OHS protocol documents or webinars can be stand-alone or complementary to the training provided.

Take Extra Precautions

Depending on your lone workers’ safety hazards, there are several effective safety measures to protect these people and maintain compliance. When working alone, employees should be provided with all the proper tools and PPE as well as a communication device to maintain contact and confirm their safety through check-ins with the employer. (A National Safety Council white paper identified two-way communication as a key benefit for lone worker safety.) Additionally, a location tracking system or feature is precious for lone work safety so that help can be sent quickly in the event of an accident or emergency.

Extra precautions, such as regular or planned check-ins to confirm the lone worker’s safety, are also effective; the lone worker study found that 28% of respondents reported daily check-ins with their lone workers, 39% reported weekly check-ins and 45% reported as needed on a demand basis.

Conduct Regular Audits and Reviews

Whichever safety measures are implemented, hazard assessments as well as audits of safety compliance must be performed regularly, identifying areas for improvement or areas of non-compliance with local safety legislation. This includes reviewing incident reports and near-miss occurrences as well asdeploying wearable technologies and passive monitoring to look at what could have been done differently for a better outcome. During these audits, adjustments may be necessary for safety protocols and procedures.

Review Work-from-Home Risks

Safety audits and hazard assessments must be performed on all lone-worker environments, including the employee’s home, if that’s where they perform their job. In addition to a lone worker policy, you may require a work-from-home policy that addresses the safety challenges that can be present. A person who works from home is considered a lone worker and therefore should be provided with all the necessary protections for this type of employment.

Employees who work from home are not typically associated with the increased risk of safety hazards that are linked with lone workers, such as injury from workplace violence or hazardous chemicals and heavy equipment. However, working from home poses its own workplace safety risks and requires its own risk mitigation measures.

Maintain Strong Safety and Compliance

Workers, including the 30-year-old employee who lost his life while repairing a bathtub, should be protected when working alone because they’re more vulnerable. Above and beyond following their local safety legislation and regulations, employers must proactively create safety policies to protect lone workers and help prevent future accidents.

“Lone work can be beneficial for both organizations and employees, allowing for more flexibility and a greater utilization of resources,” said Katherine Mendoza, senior director for workplace programs at the National Safety Council. “But this practice also comes with heightened risk for workers."

It is estimated there are more than 50 million lone workers across North America and Europe, and that number is expected to grow. People who work alone deserve special safety measures to address the special safety challenges they face without co-workers around to help.

Constantly assess and evaluate your workplace so everyone can stay safe, and your organization can stay compliant. Even though they are less visible in society, there are millions of people working alone—and at risk—in our communities.

Gen Handley is a marketing and growth coordinator for SafetyLine Lone Worker, an automated, cloud-based lone worker monitoring service that has helped companies protect remote or isolated workers for more than 20 years. Gen has more than 10 years of freelance writing and marketing experience.

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