Whether a worker is completely alone on site or just working in an area by themselves, extra care is required to ensure that this solitude doesn’t create a dangerous situation.
While isolation may not be a true hazard in and of itself, it can be a factor in various types of incidents. It should, therefore, be anticipated and controlled. With appropriate planning and foresight, lone workers can still be protected.
Assessing Lone Worker Risks
Solo work involves a little extra danger because there is no direct supervision and immediate help is not available if an incident were to occur. The latter is the primary consideration, since an accident or injury can quickly go from minor to major quickly if it isn't attended to soon enough.
Something as mundane as a twisted ankle, for example, can be a serious if it means the worker can’t walk or drive, and winds up stranded at the work site. Worse yet, if a lone worker becomes unconscious or finds themselves in medical distress, the situation can become dire.
Assessing risks is the first and most important element of a lone worker safety program. Working alone can be considered as a kind of score multiplier for risk – it combines with all other hazards relevant to that task and raises the risk that they present. If you consider the response time or access to aid in the event of an incident, suddenly tasks involving normally tolerable risks are no longer acceptable. Work that is already risky by their nature are generally not allowed for lone workers, including hot work, work at heights, and confined space entry.
(Find out How to Perform a Lone Worker Risk Assessment.)
Ensuring Lone Worker Safety
Now that we understand the risk, what can be done to make working alone safer?
Communication is key. The established strategy for working alone is a communication checkpoint system. This means that there is an expected period for checking in with another worker (say, every half hour), and defined actions if a check-in is missed.
(Learn about Radio Etiquette for Safe and Effective Communication.)
When a worker is wrapped up in what they are doing, however, missed check ins can and do happen. When they do, some action is triggered for the supervisor, and it all ends up in fruitless, ineffective back-and-forth. Better solutions are being developed to correct for worker forgetfulness and distraction to ensure consistency with minimal false alarms.
Software to Improve the Check-In Process
Software solutions aim to streamline the check-in process by partially automating the contact for a defined period. A worker acknowledges a periodic “all is well?” prompt. If they don't, an alert is triggered and sent to a supervisor.
“Man down” detection might also trigger an alert if no movement at all is detected for a period of time. An attempt will be made to contact the worker, and if there is no response, a more rigorous, tiered action is taken, including contacting supervisors, management, and ultimately emergency services.
It's a minor adjustment in approach, but it makes for a more effective process because forgetfulness and distraction are largely removed from the picture. Workers have plenty to focus on while performing a task, so solutions that reduce their cognitive load while still keeping communication open are preferable to overlapping, cumbersome manual procedures.
Some solutions go a step further and require defined action at specific intervals, such as using a smartphone to scan a QR code on site. This will create a record or notify a designated supervisor when checkpoints are missed, but also has the added benefit of location specificity and showing exactly where a worker is.
Most systems of this kind either utilize onboard smartphone technology with an installed app, or include a peripheral like a bracelet that connects via Bluetooth. There are some all-in-one solutions on the market that don’t need a phone complement at all, but these require their own dedicated data plan. This kind of scheme can work well and is widely used, but encounters problems when communications are intermittent or unreliable.
(Find out How to Improve Lone Worker Safety.)
Those working in very remote areas are likely to encounter situations where basically every means of electronic communication fails. Radios are out of range, cellular service is unavailable, and even satellite communication may be intermittent.
The best solutions combine communications technologies and tether to the strongest connection available at the moment, such as automatically moving to a satellite feed when no cellular connection can be established.
As you might expect, the data plans required for this type of device don’t come cheap, but the reliability continually improves so that connection is available from nearly any location.
Some Lone Work Is Disappearing - But Monitoring Is Still Relevant
I'm up here in oil country, so when I think of working alone, I picture a worker in coveralls climbing out of a pickup at some remote site.
However, there are lone workers who don't fit that mold at all, like those who work with the public and for whom violence can be a significant hazard. Individuals responsible for closing up shop, ending restaurant shifts, working late at all-night convenience stores are subject to additional risks from working alone.
(Learn more in Violence in the Workplace: Recognize the Risk and Take Action.)
Many jurisdictions now recognize the inherent danger of this type of work and require that at least two workers be present on night shifts or during times when communication may not be readily available. Regulators have stepped in and removed the choice from employers altogether in the matter and specified that working alone under some circumstances is simply not acceptable.
Still, even with two workers present, many of the same risks remain. Whether or not a jurisdiction allows solo work in a given scenario may vary, but communication and monitoring solutions are still essential tools for keeping these workers safe.
A combination of worker training, diligent planning, and risk assessment and monitoring can make working alone safer. The technology for remotely monitoring workers improves all the time, with a key focus on automation and ease of use. Keeping a digital eye on workers to ensure they remain safe is easier than ever. There's no longer any reason to leave workers alone with out an effective lifeline.