Lone Worker Safety
When you hear the term “lone worker,” you might think of people who work in remote locations. Some lone workers do work in isolated places, but this is often not the case.
The term lone worker describes any worker who isn’t visible or within hearing distance of other workers. This term, then, can include people who work in retail locations like gas stations or kiosks, those who work outside of normal business hours such as security, maintenance and janitorial personnel and employees who travel outside the worksite such as delivery drivers and salespeople.
OSHA does not have specific regulations in place for lone worker safety, but that doesn’t mean employers don’t need to look out for the safety of these workers. Employers are responsible for providing a safe work environment, and in the unique cases of people who work alone, often away from the worksite, that can mean paying attention to job-specific and person-specific risks.
Consider an accident that occurred in Oregon in 2006. A ranch hand was working alone in a hay field where he was moving irrigation equipment. The irrigation equipment malfunctioned, and pressurized water struck the worker in the face, knocking him unconscious and causing a serious brain injury. The ranch manager saw a geyser of water from the ranch house and hurried to the area, where he found the ranch hand. The man was transported to the hospital, but died of his injuries.
The worker was experienced in his job and followed standard procedures for performing his work. In this case, the risks of the job were associated with the irrigation equipment itself, as a defective part was what caused the accident.
In addition to highlighting the importance of assessing the risks of the tasks lone workers will be performing, this accident calls attention to the importance of monitoring lone workers. If the accident in Oregon hadn’t created a geyser, it’s possible the worker would not have been found for some time.
Let’s examine ways employers can protect the safety of lone workers in more detail.
Risks of Working Alone
First, employers must always take the time to identify the kinds of hazards an employee will face while working alone. Without doing this, it will be difficult to protect workers to the greatest extent possible.
The risks employees face will always vary depending on the tasks they’re performing. Some risks such as working in hot or cold environments may require PPE, while others such as performing maintenance on machines could involve sharp objects that could injure a worker. Workplaces will need to assess whether these risks are great enough that an employee should not work alone.
For example, a task that requires heavy lifting may be better performed by two people. Other jobs such as working near electrical hazards or in confined spaces may technically require more than one person. (When working in a confined space, an attendant must always be stationed outside the space and be in continuous contact with the worker performing the work).
In certain circumstances, the employees themselves can add risks to working alone. If a worker has a medical condition, he or she might be more likely to experience a medical emergency. Workers who are inexperienced or lack sufficient training might also be at greater risk of having an accident. Keep these things in mind when assigning tasks and conducting training.
Controlling Safety Risks for Lone Workers
Businesses should do whatever they can to reduce the risks lone workers face. This could involve providing extra training for those who work alone so they feel confident in the tasks to be performed. These workers, like any workers, should know what types of PPE they need to wear and what procedures they need to follow. Additional training such as first aid might also be a good idea in case a person is injured in a remote location where help will take a little while to arrive.
Those in charge of supervising lone workers should establish procedures for checking in with these workers. These check-ins could be visual checks, phone calls or text messages. If workers routinely do maintenance in a basement, a supervisor could go down and talk to the worker periodically. In situations where that isn’t feasible—with salespeople, for example—the company could designate a contact person that workers should call at certain points during their days to inform the company that things are going as scheduled. You should also agree upon what signals or means of communication will be used in the event of an emergency.
Businesses can go one step further with check-ins by using employee-monitoring systems. Think about the case of the ranch hand; he would not have been able to call for help because the accident knocked him unconscious. If it hadn’t been for the water spewing from the irrigation system, his supervisor wouldn’t have been alerted to the situation. A monitoring device, such as the Loner GPS remote safety-monitoring device from Blackline GPS, tracks an employee’s whereabouts and alerts safety personnel if the wearer stops moving for longer than 30 seconds.
Whichever methods you use to keep your lone workers safe, make sure you know where they are and what they’re doing. That may sound basic, but those are important pieces of information that will allow you to respond to an emergency as quickly as possible.