More employees are working alone than ever before. A report by Berg Insight estimates that there are 53 million lone workers in the U.S., Canada, and Europe — or about 15% of the workforce. And with reduced staffing, staggered shifts, and remote work arrangements to prevent the spread of COVID-19, we can expect those numbers to rise.
Whether they’re working in a factory or on the couch in their living room, lone workers face unique safety challenges — so it’s more important than ever for employers to make sure they have policies and procedures in place to protect this segment of workers.
Who is considered a lone worker?
When you think about lone workers, you probably think about someone working in a confined space or isolated location.
However, anyone who works by themselves or who can’t be seen or heard by another employee can be considered a lone worker. So that could be a janitor who works in the evening after most people have gone home. It could be a truck driver delivering packages alone, or an electrician repairing equipment in a plant after hours. An employee working at home with no one else around could also be considered a lone worker.
Working alone can increase the dangers for employees because there is no one around to help in the event of an illness, injury, or emergency. Fortunately, there are steps employers can take to keep lone workers safe.
Tips to protect lone workers
Dangers to lone workers can include falls, fires and explosions, heart attacks and other health emergencies, violence, and even ergonomic hazards. Of course, the risks facing a utility technician on a service call will be very different than those of a software developer working from home. That’s why it’s so important to evaluate each situation individually to uncover potential hazards. A formal job hazard analysis can help to collect information about the dangers of specific tasks in order to reduce the chances of an accident or injury. It can also help you to assess whether it’s safe for workers to perform the task alone in the first place.
Training & equipment
Whether they’re working alone or surrounded by other employees, all workers must be properly trained to identify and respond to potential hazards they might encounter. For lone workers, that includes training on what to do in an emergency and how to contact someone if they need assistance. It also includes training for the person who is responsible for supervisors on the procedures for checking in on lone workers, and what to do if something goes wrong.
In addition, employers should make sure that lone workers have the right equipment and protective gear to do their job safely — including appropriate first aid and emergency supplies. Again, this will look a lot different for a metal fabricator working the third shift than for an employee working from home, so it’s important to consider each situation individually.
Communication & monitoring
When it comes to protecting lone workers, communication is key. Can you imagine sending your teenage son or daughter out on the road solo without a cell phone? Of course not — you’d probably double check that the battery was fully charged and make them promise to call you when they arrive at their destination.
Similarly, it’s important to ensure that you have a plan for lone workers to check in. Your check-in plan should:
- Identify where the lone worker will be and when
- Appoint a primary contact who will respond to emergencies and missed check-ins, and a backup
- Establish regular check-in intervals
- Include a written log of contact
- Create a code word to identify or confirm that help is needed
- Define an emergency plan if a worker doesn’t check in when they’re supposed to
It’s worth noting that OSHA doesn’t define what constitutes a regular check-in, so you’ll have to decide for yourself based on your hazard assessment. Depending on the work conditions, that might mean checking in every few hours and at the end of the shift, or at more frequent intervals.
If you’re planning to use a cell phone for check-ins, make sure it’s within reach and fully charged. In some situations — for example, in remote areas with limited cell coverage — it may be smart to consider additional monitoring devices like cameras, two-way radios, or GPS.
Protecting lone workers is a continuous process — not a one-time effort. Once a lone worker plan has been established, it should be evaluated on an ongoing basis. Make sure you have a system for reporting near misses and close calls. Investigate incidents where lone work increased the danger, and re-evaluate if it’s reasonable to perform the work alone. If you determine that working alone is too dangerous, make changes so that work can be performed with someone else present.
Even if workers are physically isolated, there are still ways to make them feel less alone. Today, technology has made it easier than ever for employers to stay connected with remote or out-of-sight employees. Whether lone work is a regular part of your company’s operations or you’re adapting to new ways of working, tools like two-way messaging, mobile near miss reporting apps, and wearable devices and monitors can help you bridge the gap.