A successful safety program trains employees to look out for their own safety and the safety of others. There’s safety in numbers and looking at others can help a person trigger on their own actions to help them avoid injuries. But what happens to lone workers who don’t have colleagues beside them to rely on for safety support?
According to OSHA, employers must provide a safe workplace but there’s no law that prohibits working alone so long as the employer checks-in at “regular intervals”. This is a vague requirement and there are several issues that employers should be aware of when it comes to lone workers.
What’s a lone worker?
The term “lone worker” usually denotes an employee who works on their own. But it doesn’t exclusively mean working in isolation. The hours that someone works—particularly outside a typical 9 to 5 workday—can define them as a lone worker. Other examples of lone workers include an employee who is working alone on a task in another area, someone working in confined spaces or at heights, an employee working on the opposite side of a partition, and a worker who goes into people’s homes or meets with people outside of the organization.
The next thing to understand is the definition of a workplace. The general duty of employers from the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act) reads, “Employers have the responsibility to provide a safe and healthful workplace that is free from serious recognized hazards.” The physical workplace for a lone worker can be atypical; they might not show up to the same building every day and call it work. That’s why it’s more important for employers to focus more on safe conditions and behaviors than it is to focus on the physical location of work.
Lone workers don’t have to feel alone—employers should implement a safety program specific to their needs. Because there is an increased risk for lone workers, an individual hazard analysis is required specific to each worker to identify additional hazards that may be encountered since lone workers will have to face them on their own.
Risk assessment vs. hazard analysis
A risk assessment and job hazard analysis are vital when it comes to lone workers. A risk assessment is typically completed before a job begins. It can determine the probability of a hazard occurring and should be completed to identify any existing or anticipated hazards, evaluate the risks from those hazards, implements measures to control (or eliminate) the hazards and determine which tasks require a job hazard analysis.
A hazard analysis evaluates the tasks identified in the risk assessment, as well as site-specific hazards that may not have been part of the risk assessment. This analysis provides a formal step-by-step process to identify the dangers of specific job tasks in order to reduce the risk of injury to workers. It also establishes an action plan to integrate health and safety functions into a particular task or job to reduce or eliminate risks and to control hazards to protect workers, especially in an emergency situation.
Training needs analysis
Once hazards are identified, it’s important to perform a training needs analysis to determine the gaps between regular employee safety training and the requirements for a lone worker. Human factors training works well with lone workers because it teaches them to be aware of their state of mind and how it will impact them in certain high-risk situations. Complacency and fatigue are two major issues that affect lone workers and human factors training can be the difference between a close call and a fatality.
Other additional training, refresher courses and supplementary inspections can be useful for lone workers. Inspections should include a thorough look at all equipment to verify portability to accommodate one person. Also, the first aid kit must be reconfigured to suit the hazards a lone worker will face—a basic first aid kit is not enough.
The most important part of their training is being well-versed in their emergency plan. A lone worker must be well prepared because they are often the only responder on site in the case of an emergency. As described in the definition above, being a lone worker doesn’t necessarily mean you’re alone which means other people can contribute to the incidents/accidents surrounding lone workers. If new communication devices are implemented, ensure lone workers are thoroughly trained in them.
Communication is an essential part of lone worker safety. Regular contact with lone workers must be established. The required amount of contact is dependent on the type of associated risks identified. Some sites require an hourly check-in (in person or verbal) while others may require a status update every 15 minutes. The form of communication and frequency should be established and agreed upon by both parties.
If an in-person visit will take place, it is important that a time is scheduled that both parties are aware of. It’s also a good idea to require the employee to carry a smartphone, cellphone, satellite phone, walkie-talkie, radio, GPS, etc. Determining the best device for remote employees is key to improving safety conditions.
Lone workers will feel safer with a personal emergency response system that can summon emergency personnel in the event of an emergency. There are smartphone apps that can not only alert authorities but pinpoint the worker’s location and provide peace of mind. Another good idea is to equip lone workers with an audible alarm. Even if it’s not dispatching emergency services, the sound is enough to deter attackers.
A lone worker safety program can change the perspective of a worker from looking out for their own safety and the safety of others to being aware of the conditions surrounding their job, including the hours worked and atypical location. Human factors training and human error prevention programs can also help lone workers be more aware of how to avoid their own human error while left on their own on the job.