Lone workers

Lone worker safety

Organizations can take steps to ensure safety for people who work alone

Lone Worker
Photo: Susan Chiang/iStockphoto

Key points

  • Assessing risks and setting limits for what is permissible during lone work are among the procedures recommended by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries.
  • OSHA says employers should check on lone workers “at regular intervals” but does not specify what that means in terms of frequency.
  • Experts advise organizations to re-evaluate their procedures on lone workers because of new employees, equipment, technologies and other changes to the work environment.

A key component of worker safety is to watch out for one another.

However, lone work presents a fundamental challenge to watchfulness. How can someone watch a colleague’s back if that colleague is working alone and out of sight?

A lone worker can be anyone who works alone in a fixed facility or away from his or her typical base. At times, the definition applies to those who work alone in factories or warehouses on nights or weekends. It also applies to traveling workers in construction, utilities, maintenance and repair, agriculture, and other fields.

By law, employers have a responsibility to protect their workers regardless of whether they’re surrounded by colleagues or alone on an assignment. Organizations of all sizes can promote lone worker safety by developing policies, communicating with workers, and using available technology to track worker location and movement.

Lisa Pogue is a safety and health technical specialist for the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. Several years ago, the agency’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health published a guidance document titled, “Working Alone Safely: Controlling the Risks of Solitary Work.” Identifying hazards, assessing risks and establishing preventive control measures comprise the document’s primary pieces of advice.

“I think the bottom line is that employers should develop a procedure protecting the welfare of their employees during working hours, especially if they’re working alone in isolated areas or they’re not within calling distance of somebody,” Pogue said.

Recommended procedures from the Washington L&I document include:

  • Conduct risk assessments to determine if work may be done safely by lone workers.
  • Train lone workers on emergency response.
  • Establish a clear action plan in the event of an emergency.
  • Set limits for what is permissible during lone work.
  • Require supervisors to make periodic visits to observe lone workers.
  • Ensure regular contact between lone workers and supervisors via phone or radio.
  • Use automatic warning devices that alert others if signals are not received periodically from a lone worker.
  • Verify that lone workers have returned to fixed base or home after completing a task.

Gray area

Only a few government resources on lone work are available to employers, and some vague language in OSHA’s regulations opens the door to more questions.

For example, take language in OSHA’s standard on working alone in the shipyard industry:

  • 1915.84(a) Except as provided in 1915.51(c)(3) of this part, whenever an employee is working alone, such as in a confined space or isolated location, the employer shall account for each employee:
  • 1915.84(a)(1) Throughout each work shift at regular intervals appropriate to the job assignment to ensure the employee’s safety and health; and
  • 1915.84(a)(2) At the end of the job assignment or at the end of the work shift, whichever occurs first.
  • 1915.84(b) The employer shall account for each employee by sight or verbal communication.

But what exactly does OSHA mean by “regular intervals”? If an employee is injured while working alone, it’s difficult to know how quickly an employer is expected to provide help. Five minutes? Five hours? Somewhere in between?

An OSHA fact sheet on shipyard safety offers some clarification without entirely resolving the issue: “[Shipyard] employees working on a brief task may only need to be checked on once during a workshift or job assignment,” the document states. “However, an employee working for several hours, in a remote part of a shipyard, may need to be checked on numerous times to ensure their safety.”

Regardless of specifics, the burden falls on employers to keep their workers safe.

Pogue said an organization’s work is not finished after it develops a procedure for monitoring lone workers. It’s important to revisit the issue.

“It’s a continual evaluation,” Pogue said. “What has changed in their work environment? New people, new processes, new equipment, those types of things need to be re-evaluated and taken into consideration. What hazards may be present now that weren’t before?”

Turning plans into action

Stephen Wilson didn’t want to wait for an incident before addressing lone worker safety. That’s why, in his role as corporate director, safety, health and environmental affairs at Irving, TX-based Flowserve Corp. – a Fortune 500 company that manufactures pumps, valves and mechanical seals – Wilson helped develop a proactive approach.

Depending on a client’s needs, a Flowserve employee might be expected to travel alone to work at another organization’s facility. Emergency repairs might require solitary work after-hours or during holiday weekends.

“We have always had concerns about working alone, and the larger our company gets, the bigger the concern,” Wilson said. “Because you can lose control if you’re not really diligent in terms of knowing how many locations have solo workers and where they are.”

Flowserve re-evaluated its lone worker procedures about two-and-a-half years ago. The organization realized that it could better protect its lone workers by investing in newer, albeit more expensive, technology. Soon after, the organization purchased 92 personal safety devices that are used in about 75 sites around the world.

“Our costs range between $1,600 and $3,000 per person that we’re protecting,” Wilson said in reference to the devices, which include GPS technology and emergency alerts. “In the grand scheme of things, that cost is nothing compared to the possible consequences of someone going down with a heart attack and us not knowing it, or someone being severely injured and us not knowing it and being unable to get help in a timely fashion.”

Flowserve has not had an emergency incident with a lone worker since buying the devices.

“It’s excellent insurance,” Wilson said. “I sleep better at night.”

The same is true for Ruth Kaminski, human resources and safety director at Auburn, MA-based Spear Management Group Inc., a property management firm with four locations. Employees take part in training sessions with police, firefighters and other emergency responders before working alone at properties in Maine and Massachusetts. Every employee also is equipped with a personal safety device.

“They’re trained in: If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t right,” Kaminski said. “Go with your instincts. They’re all trained in active shooter. They’re all trained in de-escalation.

“If we have good employees, we want to keep them. We don’t want them injured. We want to show them that we care about them, and this is one way of doing that. In my opinion, it has benefits for everybody.”

Spotlight on the shipyard industry

Eighteen shipyard workers were killed while working alone between 2002 and 2012, according to OSHA.

The agency decided to focus more on the issue in hopes of putting an end to the tragedies. An OSHA fact sheet provides guidance to protect shipyard employees who work alone, often in remote locations, which may hinder quick detection or treatment in case of injury.

OSHA says employers must check on workers at regular intervals, be it once for a brief assignment or multiple times a day for a longer assignment. Means of verification include:

  • Visual: Camera, in-person
  • Verbal: Two-way radio (such as a walkie-talkie); in-person; intercom system

The agency says cell phones are permissible in areas where reception exists. Cell phones are not allowed when an employer cannot show that reception is available, such as below deck. Other unreliable, unacceptable forms of communication include the sound of power tools or whistles and tapping on decks, bulkheads or tank walls to check on a worker.

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