Lone Worker Safety – What Does it Mean?
Not every employee has the benefit of working with peers. Some are lone workers who do their jobs pretty much solo without coworkers or even supervisors nearby. Contractors, field workers, home health care nurses, social workers, realtors, and fleet drivers are just a few examples of lone workers. It is estimated that there are 53 million lone workers in Canada, the United States and Europe combined; a total of about 15 percent of the overall workforce. IDC estimates there are approximately 1.3 billion people who are considered mobile workers, many of whom work alone all or part of their day.
According to the Health and Safety Authority, lone workers include:
- people in fixed establishments where only one person works on the premises, e.g. in small workshops, kiosks, gas stations, shops, and home-workers
- people who work separately from others, e.g. in factories, warehouses, some research and training establishments, leisure centers, or fairgrounds
- people who work outside normal hours, e.g. cleaners, security, special production, maintenance, repair staff, etc.
- people who work away from their fixed base, e.g. on construction sites, plant installations, maintenance and cleaning work, electrical repairs, lift repairs, painting and decorating, vehicle recovery, etc.
- agricultural and forestry workers
- service workers, e.g. rent collectors, postal staff, social workers, home helps, district nurses, pest control workers, drivers, engineers, or architects
These workers have important and often dangerous jobs. How can an employer or coworker keep tabs on these employees and what can the lone worker do to maximize their own safety? Any costs required to ensure the safety of these employees is nothing compared to the possible consequences of someone being injured on the job without anyone knowing or the ability to call for help.
Keeping Lone Workers Safe
It’s up to the employer to ensure their employees, lone workers or not, are adequately protected and have the means to get help if needed. In fact, Section 19 of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act of 2005 requires the employer to undertake a risk assessment before they can dispatch a lone worker.
There are many different variables that come into play when it comes to these assessments. The environment, work conditions, required tasks, accessibility to first aid, and the potential for physical violence from outsiders are just some of the considerations. If safety cannot be established, the employer must arrange for onsite help or dispatch a fellow worker. While employers are on the hook for the majority of the obligation, all of the responsibility isn’t solely on the employer, however.
Employees share a portion of the burden. They must:
- Take reasonable care to look after their own safety and health
- Safeguard the safety and health of other people affected by their work
- Cooperate with their employer’s safety and health procedures
- Use tools and other equipment properly, in accordance with any relevant safety instructions and training they have been given
- Not misuse equipment provided for their safety and health
- Report all accidents, injuries, near-misses, and other dangerous occurrences
Personal Safety Devices on the Rise
In order to minimize risks, employers must implement a series of control measures, such as providing a way for the lone worker to communicate with the employer and/or first responders. Increasingly more companies are investing in mass communication software and personal safety devices. These devices range in how they operate but one of the more innovative and effective solutions connects to a mobile phone.
The lone worker can wear a wrist tether, headphones, or anything that plugs into their mobile phone. A connected mobile phone app can be turned on to begin monitoring. If the accessory is pulled loose from the audio jack, an alert is sent to an offsite monitoring center who uses GPS to locate the lone worker. Help is immediately sent to the location without the worker ever having to log into their phone, manually call for help, or tap on any apps.
The monitoring service uses the information previously inputted on the phone by the worker to provide first responders or employers with identifying information, such as height, weight, hair color, and even a real-time description of the clothing they are wearing. This has been a life-saving feature for lone workers in the social work industry, for instance.
Social workers, and health care nurses, in particular, frequently face threats from unruly patients and family members. More than 20 percent of registered nurses and nursing students reported being physically assaulted in 2014 – and those are just the reported cases. In a study of 10,000 licensed social workers, 44 percent reported they faced personal safety issues in their primary employment practice, and 30 percent of them did not think their employers adequately addressed the safety issues.
Having a “button-free” app to use saves precious seconds in an emergency as well as GPS tracking that can pinpoint the lone worker’s exact location. Being able to input your physical features, clothing, and the exact location they are visiting (such as an apartment number), ensures help can find the lone worker much faster.
Practice Makes Perfect
Of course, no matter what precautions are taken and which personal safety devices are used, emergency procedures should be established and employees thoroughly trained in them. Lone workers must know how to use the technology but also steps they should take to ensure their own safety. They should know their surroundings and practice “what if” scenarios. Not every scenario can be planned for, but every worker should know how they would communicate in an emergency, where they can find first aid, where danger and safe zones may be, and how they would remove themselves from a dangerous situation.
As most companies have an emergency alert system in place in their facilities, lone workers should be afforded the same opportunity to get information and assistance in an emergency. No matter where an employee works, they should be confident that their emergency is a top priority by their employer. Every second counts so employers should find the technology that removes the most steps between their employees and the help they may need. Personal safety requires a personal emergency alert system. Be sure your employees, lone or not, have what they need to perform their work to the best of their ability with the faith that should a threat or emergency arise, they are not alone. “Lone” should not mean “alone.”
For organizations looking for more information on how to keep their lone workers safe in the field, here are a few helpful resources:
- Social Work Today recently published an informative article on lone worker safety called “Social Worker Safety: Ultimate Self-Care.”
- The Division of Occupational Safety & Health (DOSH) published a guide called “Working Alone Safely: Controlling the Risks of Solitary Work.”
- From the UK comes a similar guide from its Health and Safety Executive (HSE) entitled “Working Alone: Health and Safety Guidance on the Risks of Lone Working.”