While they may carry out the same type of work as other employees, lone workers face a unique set of risks that must be taken into account by any safety program.
As the name implies, lone workers are workers who work, well, alone. This includes utility workers who make service calls, custodians working after hours in office buildings, factory workers who work by themselves in a section of a manufacturing plant, and basically anyone else who works without direct in-person supervision.
While lone work can be highly valuable and convenient, it also exposes workers to additional hazards. Lone workers don't have coworkers watching their backs, may not have access to typical safety amenities like eyewash stations and AEDs, and limited ability to communicate with supervisors. Moreover, if something does go wrong, it can take longer for first responders to reach workers in remote locations.
The data bears this out. A survey of 224 lone workers and their supervisors found that:
- 19% reported struggling to get help after an accident
- 43% reported feeling unsafe at work
- 93% regularly or occasionally work outside cell phone coverage
- 63% have been unable to contact someone due to a lack of connection
Because of this, performing a thorough risk assessment is a crucial step to ensuring that these employees can work safely. In this article, we'll share some advice for assessing risks and protecting those who work alone.
(Learn about The 5 Elements Your Lone Worker Policy Needs to Have)
What Is a Risk Assessment?
A risk assessment is a formal procedure that examines the work area, tasks performed, and equipment used in carrying out a job to identify the risks associated with them. The goal is to identify the hazards so that they can be controlled, making the job safer and the work environment more predictable.
A new risk assessment should be performed whenever key elements of the job changes, such as starting work in a new location, modifying job tasks, or using a new type of equipment.
Example: Chemical Hazards Risk Assessment
OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) provides an efficient way to make workers aware of chemical hazards and the protective measures associated with them. The Hazardous Materials Identification System (HMIS) helps companies to stay in compliance with HCS by making it easy for workers to identify hazards at a single glance, as well as ascertain the severity of the risk.
OSHA requires not only employers and employees, but also chemical manufacturers and importers to perform risk assessments relating to their products. Once these are completed, the hazards are listed on the label and the safety data sheets (SDS) shipped with the product. This information protects every employee who might come into contact with the hazardous chemicals. It allows them to take the right precautions when handling them or working near them.
These forms of hazard communication are doubly important for employees who work in isolation. The Hazard Communication Standard gives you the information you need to equip employees who cannot work under your direct supervision with the gear they need to work safely.
(Learn Everything You Need to Know About Safety Data Sheets)
What Hazards Should You Include?
An adequate assessment will at least take the following into account:
- The work area
- The jobs performed in that area
- The number of employees in that area
- A list of all known industry risks and hazards
- The likelihood of harm
- The possible severity of the harm
- Observation and documentation of risk levels and their acceptability
- Plans to limit or cut the potential hazards
For workers who are under zero or very little supervision, it's important to consider that they might have added PPE or first aid needs. No one can reach them quickly if there is an emergency. That's why isolated workers depend on monitoring and communication devices. This equipment notifies others if they encounter a problem with the environment or sustain an injury.
(Learn about Lone Worker First Aid Must Haves)
Consider the case of a municipal utility worker who has to do some repairs inside an underground tunnel. That job will take them underground and out of sight. What risks should you consider before sending them off? Here are a few of them:
- The chemical products the worker may use
- Limited ventilation, increasing respiratory risks
- Potentially toxic atmosphere inside the tunnel
- Presence of power systems, including electrical lines and wireless devices
- Sparking or static electricity from the use of tools, which can result in a fire or explosion
- Temperatures inside the tunnel, which could be very hot or bitterly cold
Your risk assessment also needs to consider how you will respond in the event of an emergency. Say the worker slips and falls while working inside the tunnel, what type of emergency response will be needed? And will that emergency response pose additional risks (either to the employee or those providing aid) that need to be factored into your assessment?
(Find out How to Safely Rescue Someone from a Confined Space)
Equipping Your Worker to Deal with Identified Hazards
Once you have completed your risk assessment, you will have all the information you need to equip your employee with everything they need to stay safe while working alone.
- If the worker will be repairing power lines from a cherry picker, they will need a safety harness and lanyard in case they lose their balance and fall from the bucket
- If the worker will be working in a sewer or another confined space with a potentially toxic atmosphere, it is essential to provide them with a respirator that can supply enough breathable air for them to complete the job and safely exit the space
In almost every case, control measures must be implemented to eliminate or minimize identified risks. These controls may include:
- Communication and monitoring devices (smartphones, tablets, radios)
- Wearable devices that will alert supervisors if the worker has fallen or become unconscious
- Portable monitors to detect the presence of dangerous gases or dips in oxygen levels
- Training and instructions for emergency scenarios
- Providing lone workers with well-stocked first-aid kits and training on how to use its contents
- Implementing standard operating procedures (SOPs)
Follow Up and Maintain Safety Policy
Risk assessments are great tools to protect workers as employees may not always work around the facility. The following steps will ensure ongoing success with your lone worker risk assessments:
- Identify and characterize hazards the lone worker might face
- Analyze the level of risk by assessing the likelihood of an incident occurring and its severity
- Determine what steps must be taken to minimize risks and mitigate hazards
- Regularly re-assess the environment and the work tasks to identify new risks, which much then in turn be mitigated with new equipment or procedures
- Provide lone workers with additional training so they can work safely without direct supervision
- Keep records of your risk assessment and collect data about the ongoing performance of your lone worker safety program
- Even when no new hazards are identified, revisit your lone worker safety program regularly to look for elements of it that can be improved