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Lone worker safety

Planning, communication and stop-work authority are key

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Photo: Iryna Melnyk/iStockphoto

From a remote field or forest to a far-off cell tower site, an office building at 10 p.m. or a convenience store at 2 a.m., lone workers can be found in a wide variety of settings and industries.

Defining the term “lone worker” comes down to several key factors, says Dave Nickel, who is senior consultant and health and safety director, Midwest and South Atlantic, for Minneapolis-based ERM. The consulting firm has clients in more than a dozen industries, including oil and gas, mining and metals, chemical, manufacturing, and automotive.

“The way we categorize a lone worker is if we have workers who can’t be heard or seen by another individual during the course of work,” Nickel said. “They aren’t anticipated to be visited by someone throughout the course of a day. Nobody is visiting or dropping off supplies.”

Often, lone workers are in locations with limited emergency response and perform jobs with nonstandard work hours, so preparation is critical to their safety.

“There has to be a plan in place to let people work alone,” said Kathy Stieler, director of safety, health and compliance for NATE: The Communications Infrastructure Contractors Association. “You’ve got to have a safety policy.”

Stieler recently co-authored an industry safety manual that features a chapter on working alone.

“You have to have specific practices and procedures to minimize the risk of injury,” she added.

According to the National Safety Council’s “Safety Technology 2020” report, developed as part of the nonprofit’s Work to Zero initiative, lone worker monitoring was cited by safety professionals as the second most common technology used to mitigate hazardous situations. Situations in which lone worker monitoring tools most often are used are construction and installation, tending a retail establishment, emergency response, vehicle-pedestrian interactions, and inspections.

OSHA has no standard on employees working alone, but does have standards that apply to specific situations, such as emergency response and interior structural firefighting.

In response to a frequently asked question posted on its website, OSHA recommends that employers develop emergency procedures along with “providing a wireless electronic notification device and/or cellphone to those employees.”

Communication

The most important safety plan for lone workers revolves around communication. “It is paramount,” Stieler said. “In our industry, there’s an awful lot of cellular phone use.” Also common are GPS devices and mobile apps for monitoring workers, some of which detect motion and falls.

Nickel, who co-authored a presentation titled “Do You Have Your Lone Workers’ Back?” for the 2021 NSC Safety Congress & Expo, said organizations with lone workers should have a communication plan.

“We have an actual procedural form that we set up,” he said.

The form has phone numbers and a means of communication for workers to stay in contact, and vice versa. It also includes predetermined check-in times throughout a shift, establishing whether cell service is available before work begins and determining what different lines of communication can be used, such as a push-to-talk device or safety monitor.

“We want to have some built-in redundancy there so we can get a hold of our staff or they can get a hold of us,” Nickel said. “Technology is definitely coming along and allowing us to keep better tabs on our folks.”

A plan on how to respond to missed check-ins also should be considered. Other safety measures can include a project and site-specific safety plan, a job hazard analysis, and personal protective equipment.

When lone work is a no-go

Despite many workers going it alone, scenarios can arise in which lone work is a no-no. For instance, many cell towers are in remote areas, so lone workers assigned to those locales should never leave the ground, Stieler noted.

“When working from height, you cannot work alone,” she said. “There are some jobs you can do where you can work alone.” For tower workers, that includes checking cell tower anchors for damage. In addition, she and Nickel note that working alone with electricity or in confined spaces is never recommended.

“We have some definite deal-breakers,” Nickel said of lone work. “We’re not going to put someone in a difficult situation where we’re going to jeopardize their safety, security, health and well-being to be a lone worker.”

Those scenarios include working in, near or above water, along with subsurface clearance work. In addition, according to Nickel and the Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety, lone work should be avoided when:

  • Severe weather conditions arise or are forecasted
  • The risk of an avalanche is present
  • Chemical exposure could incapacitate a worker
  • Respirators or air monitoring is required to work
  • Hazardous equipment (e.g., chainsaws, firearms) is used
  • In public places where the potential for violence is present

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