Managing the Safety of Lone Workers

Not all safety in the workplace is about prevention

fallen worker

Do you know if all of your people are safe right now?

In many companies and many jobs, the most obvious safety measures focus on prevention. As an employer, it is good practice to put every measure in place to mitigate the risk of an incident from happening. This can range from the obvious-putting on a hardhat to stop an injury from falling debris-to procedures and protocols that guide workers away from exposure to hazards. Unfortunately, safety isn’t just about mitigating the chances of an accident. In reality you can do everything by-the-book and accidents will still happen.

The other component of a good safety program is preventing bad situations from getting worse. For example, a broken leg is a bad injury that can lead to a much worse situation, or even death, if nobody knows that the leg is broken. In many jobs, workers are surrounded by coworkers doing similar or complimentary roles. In these workplaces, if a worker needs help there is a good chance that coworkers will quickly notice and begin to take action. But what happens if that worker is alone?

Defining a new kind of worker

Working alone has a different definition in every region. In general, “lone worker” refers to any employee carrying out some or all of their job activities in isolation from other workers. This might bring to mind a rugged worker far out in the wilderness, but a lone worker could also be a homecare nurse driving to see their next patient, or a businessperson on a sales trip. Certainly, the worker out in the brush by themselves is alone, but the homecare nurse, while near a patient, is still working alone. Although a patient could potentially provide aide to a healthcare nurse during an emergency, like all members of the public that patient also presents the risk of violence. In the example of two businesspeople travelling together in a car, if the car has an accident, both of the workers remain in isolation from the rest of the workforce. In some regions, travelers are considered to be working alone even while together.

While all workers need to avoid injuries on the job, additional hazards exist for lone workers such as car accidents, violence from strangers or coworkers, trip & fall injuries, threats from wildlife, and a host of other hazards that differ for each job role. When a worker is alone, what would otherwise be a minor accident can very easily escalate to a more serious threat. Employers should do a complete risk & hazard assessment for every worker, and factor in cases where workers might be exposed to hazards while alone. For every hazard on the job, the risk to the worker increases if present while working alone.

Mitigating the risks to lone workers

If the risk is so great, then why is anyone still permitted to work alone? Why not just require all workers to use the buddy system? The reality is that many job roles necessitate workers to be occasionally or always alone, for practical purposes. The solution, just like in any other safety situation, is for the employer and employee to work together in mitigating the risks. Lone workers need unique policies and training which will allow them to identify high risk situations using pre-set criteria. This will allow them to proceed with their job using caution, and in a way that minimizes the chance of hazards. Training and procedures should also address “what if?” scenarios, where caution is not effective in preventing an accident. Workers will need procedures and tools to either call for help themselves, or more importantly, the ability for others to be notified in the event the worker is unable to call for help.

One fundamental protocol that should be a part of every lone worker’s procedures is the requirement to check-in with the employer on a regular basis while working alone. Doing so gives the worker a set amount of time before another check-in is required, and allows the employer to know that if the worker misses their next check-in, an accident may have occurred. Each worker’s unique hazard assessment should be used to determine how often those check-ins should happen, and the worker should have the ability to change the frequency of their check-ins based on their ever-changing hazards. Because this is such a fundamental need to a good lone worker program, many regions’ regulations explicitly require such a system.

Using technology to streamline safety

An effective tool for helping manage the safety of these employees is what is known as a “lone worker safety monitoring solution.” These solutions, typically available as a service, integrate with multiple communications devices to manage the detection and notification of accidents in the workplace for workers who are alone, remote, or in isolation. The services available range from provider to provider, but all include having the workers communicate with a central location or server, and the ability to notify the company and its managers when an alert is detected. Alerts are typically generated through the action of workers, or more effectively, through the lack of action (a missed check-in or lack of motion, for example). Some of the best solutions are fully automated, using technology to manage check-ins, alerts, and notifications. These systems can integrate with a variety of different devices depending on need, ranging from simple phones to smartphones, and even dedicated satellite devices. These solutions also help manage the procedures taken by managers after they’ve received an alert notification.

A good lone worker safety monitoring solution is not just about putting a device in the hands of workers, but more importantly it is about managing the entire end-to-end protocol. Lone worker safety systems help mitigate risks in a way that is different than standard safety solutions–they aren’t about preventing injuries. While injury prevention is important, it is equally important to know if a worker has had an accident. A good lone worker solution should be a part of every general safety program, and can prevent bad situations from getting worse, thus minimizing the overall risk of any job where someone is working alone.

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