Ergonomics Lone workers Agriculture, forestry and fishing Utilities Wholesale and retail trade

Alone but not alienated

Promoting safety among lone workers


Photo: Photodisc

Monitoring and managing the safe behavior of a workforce can be a difficult task, even in an enclosed environment. Yet employees who work autonomously create even greater challenges for safety managers and workplace supervisors.

Although the term “lone worker” also covers those performing individual jobs on a worksite – such as a job task in an area of the plant that cannot be easily viewed by co-workers, or even a receptionist in a large office building – the needs of remote workers who cannot be supervised through conventional means present perhaps the greatest challenge.

The issue of managing lone workers is one more organizations are facing, said Robert Pater, managing director of the training program MoveSMART for Portland, OR-based Strategic Safety Associates. Autonomous work is a growing trend. “The model that many organizations are using is to get out to where the work is,” he said. “We have found that almost every organization has some lone workers. … Autonomous workers are [accounting for] an increasingly large percentage of the workforce.”

Hazards unique to lone workers

Some common industries for lone workers include utilities, service and repair, sales, and agriculture or forestry. Many – such as truckers and delivery people – are required to spend the bulk of their workday in a vehicle. In addition to the risks of traffic incidents, spending a large portion of the day in a vehicle can lead to other injuries.

According to OSHA, sprains and strains account for half of all injuries truck drivers suffer. Truckers also are highly susceptible to soreness and pain from sitting in the same position for extended periods of time. Injuries caused by tripping or falling while getting in and out of vehicles also are common.

For other lone workers, ergonomics injuries can be a particular area of concern because they often are performing tasks at a client’s workplace. The work area is out of the employer’s control, thus the design approach to solving ergonomics problems is not an option. 

However, not being in control of the environment does not mean that nothing can be done to reduce hazards. Lone workers “may always face work environments that their direct employer does not control, but they can learn to significantly minimize these hazards, or bypass them or reduce them, and may actually be less prone to complacency as a result,” said Ron Bowles, director of operations for Strategic Safety Associates.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety calls on employers to assess the risk of lone work on a number of variables, including the location and type of work, the worker’s level of interaction with the public, and likely consequences of an emergency or injury. Although CCOHS does not consider lone work inherently dangerous, the agency recommends lone work be avoided when possible and higher-risk activities be scheduled at a time when another worker can be on the scene.

Dan Locke of the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries pointed out that although OSHA has no standard specifically addressing the safety needs of lone workers, existing standards “do not allow lone workers in confined spaces or electrical work near live conductors,” he noted. “Other standards, such as the tunneling standard, require ‘… an effective means of obtaining assistance in an emergency.’”

To determine whether a job can be performed safely by a lone worker, Washington L&I recommends asking the following questions:

  • Does the workplace present a special risk to the lone worker?
  • Can the employee safely exit and enter the workplace?
  • Can temporary access equipment, such as portable ladders or trestles, be safely handled by one person?
  • Can all machinery and goods involved in the workplace be safely handled by one person?
  • Are any chemicals or hazardous substances being used that may pose a risk to the worker?
  • Does the work involve lifting objects too large for one person?
  • Is more than one person needed to operate essential controls for the safe running of equipment or workplace transport?
  • Is a risk of violence present?
  • Are young, pregnant or disabled workers at risk if they work alone?
  • If the lone worker’s first language is not English, are arrangements in place to ensure clear communication, especially in an emergency?

Mentality of the lone worker

To effectively manage lone workers, employers need to understand the differences between them and employees who work as part of a crew.

“Individuals who work in isolation have less exposure to important social influences that can promote safe and healthful behaviors,” said Ryan Olson, assistant scientist at Oregon Health and Science University’s Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology. He said having co-workers on-site can help foster safety by allowing employees to model best practices and provide encouragement and safety reminders to one another. 

Additionally, Pater said organizations will be unsuccessful using a “one-size-fits-all” training method for lone workers due, in part, to their mentality. “Lone workers are different. People who are successful lone workers want to be lone workers for a lot of different reasons,” he said. “They don’t have as much need for social interaction. They may not desire the social interaction and support that other people do.”

Rather than attempting to command and control the lone worker, Pater said, organizations can be more effective if they encourage workers to value safety for themselves. While workers in a crew may comply with safety regulations because they know they are being closely monitored, lone workers are not subject to that source of motivation. “You have to work on their strengths, not their weaknesses. How you enforce and transmit safety has to be very, very different than when you have an enclosed workforce where, theoretically, you can watch over and see what they’re doing and have monthly safety meetings,” he said.

Pater added that lone workers typically are individuals who are self-motivated and self-regulated. “So the strategy is to help them become even more self-motivated for safety, even more self-regulated,” he said. “The real challenge is motivating these people for safety, transferring skills and reinforcing them basically when they are working in areas where they are working on their own and you don’t have control.”

Training the lone worker

Bowles of Strategic Safety Associates contends lone work is not inherently unsafe, but stresses the necessity of proper development. “I’ve seen lone utility workers [who] rival the best workers in crews,” he said. “The key is not so much how they are managed, but how they are selected, developed and reinforced. Encouraging ownership for safe practices can enhance employees’ ownership for their job as a whole.”

The development and training of lone workers has to differ from that of other workers, Pater said. “The thought process of most safety and health interventions assumes an in-plant, enclosed or highly supervised [workforce],” he said. “But for these people, that could not be further from their reality.”

Some organizations tend to overlook the unique needs of lone workers and train those workers with the rest of the staff. Lone worker safety training should be more extensive than that of an in-plant worker, according to Locke. “Provide them the necessary safety and health training that would apply to non-lone workers in that particular work situation,” Locke said, “but also address specific hazards of working alone.”

Pater believes many organizations make the mistake of paying lip service to safety. Because a number of lone workers perform jobs that are commission-based or where time is particularly important, they may be compelled to cut corners in terms of safety. Employers may insist that workers “take all the time you need for safety, safety is No. 1,” he explained. “But then they’re getting another message through their compensation that the faster they work and the more places they go to, the more money they make – [and that] is a mixed message.” To prevent this, he recommended organizations “make sure your compensation system and your expectations of workload do not interfere” with safety.

One of the major differences between lone workers and workers in an enclosed area is communication. “There may be no one immediately available to assist them in an emergency, accident or injury,” Locke said, “or no one may know they are involved in an accident or are injured.”

Because of this, he stressed that communication with the lone worker is “extremely important” and noted: “There are a number of electronic devices and equipment available now to provide nearly instant communication with a lone worker or for the worker to send a distress signal.”

Advancing technology also presents additional options for training lone workers, such as Internet-based training. Although it may not be advisable to rely exclusively on the Internet to train workers – Pater cautioned that it cannot teach new skills – websites and computer-based systems can be helpful in imparting safety knowledge. Olson in November 2009 published a study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (Vol. 51, No. 11) that examined the usefulness of a pilot program that provided health and safety information to truckers through laptop computers and cell phones.

The program, which included web-based learning and phone calls from health counselors (used only when drivers were safely parked), improved both the health and safety of truckers enrolled after six months. An onboard computer indicated program participants spent less time driving over the speed limit and had fewer hard-braking incidents. These truckers also reduced their weight by an average of 8 pounds, reduced their consumption of fats and sugar, and increased their level of physical activity.

“The approach may also prove useful for engaging other populations of lone workers in health promotion programs,” Olson said.

Working together on safety

Although having an open line of communication with lone workers is important, employers often are compelled to perform random, unannounced inspections to make sure  workers are performing their tasks safely and effectively. This, Pater said, is a poor practice.

“Many [lone workers] resent when you treat them like children or like they’re idiots or like you’re trying to catch them,” he said. Additionally, workers talk among themselves and often are prepared for the “surprise” inspection. “They’ll put their game face on, be ultrasafe, follow all the rules and they’ll laugh at you” afterward, Pater said. “It’s not real safety. It’s the appearance of short-term safety.”

He insisted that working in conjunction with lone employees is a better bet because they are the ones with the expertise. “Ask them: ‘What have you encountered?’” he suggested. “They are the experts in their work environment. They know much more than people who are plant-based or corporations.” Ask them what tools or personal protective equipment they may need to perform their jobs safely, Pater said.

It is a method CCOHS advocates as well. To assess risk, CCOHS recommends employers speak with workers about their job and the risks they see on a daily basis. Collaborating with workers on a safety plan not only will encourage employees to buy in to safety, but it also will help structure a safety program that will be truly effective for the lone worker.

Reporting injuries can be an issue among lone workers, so make sure the workplace culture encourages openness. “I’m a big believer in building early warning systems where you’re actively soliciting negative responses and watching for pushbacks by asking them rather than squelching them,” Pater said.

One method to help keep track of workers while still allowing them to retain their autonomy is self-reporting. Workers can gather data on accidents and near misses, as well as any equipment or environmental information that pertains to safety. However, when not implemented properly, this system can breed resentment among workers and be viewed as an unnecessary increase in paperwork.

Olson recommended that to be successful, self-reporting systems should be worker-centered and customized specific to your organization. “Worker-centered means that worker needs, motives and technical expertise drive the process,” he said. “Customized means that unique organizational injury and disease rates guide the selection of target behaviors, conditions and events.”

Finally, Pater recommends delivering safety information in a short and simple fashion. “The more you have, the less they’ll remember,” he said. “If you expect them to consult a book if they can’t remember, to me it’s a fool’s paradise. … Rather than command and control, it’s better for organizations to think in terms of influence and support. You know, ‘How do I help them change their behavior?’ rather than ‘How can I control it?’ Because I would suggest you really can’t control it.”

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