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How to Protect Lone Workers With a Safety Management Program

Jan 29, 2021
Safety professional man in safety vest and a hard hat holding a clipboard in front of a teal background

To protect worker well-being, organizations must commit to safety and health. Many choose to act on that commitment by implementing a safety management program that helps them address risks systemically.

But lone workers — individuals whose responsibilities leave them isolated on the job — face distinct hazards and risks that may require a tailored approach. If you oversee the safety of people who work alone, particularly if they are contractors, you may be wondering how to enhance your existing procedures to better meet their needs.

In 2018, Fred Straub, Ph.D., M.S., CSP, ARM, president and principal consultant of Prospering Safely: Safety & Risk Management Services LLC, published an article in Professional Safety called “High Risk, Lone Worker.” In it, he describes several actions safety professionals can take to support this critical workforce.

“The risk appetite of U.S. employers is maturing to recognize and respond to the hazards of lone work,” Straub says. “Old business paradigms of minimal staffing to achieve maximum profits are being countered with wise risk management decisions to produce quality service and products in a safe manner.” 

Are you ready to better integrate risk-reducing controls for lone workers into your safety management program? Here are Straub’s 10 tips.  

1. Define Lone Worker

While the definition of lone worker may seem obvious, Straub says it’s helpful for everyone in your organization to agree on clear language and guidelines upfront.

He recommends the Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety’s definition of lone work, which says the term describes a person who:

  • Works alone at a job site in circumstances where assistance would not be readily available (e.g. truck drivers, certain medical personnel, homeworkers engaged in high-risk tasks)

  • Cannot be seen or heard by anyone else (e.g. workers in remote treatment plants, after-hours housekeeping staff, field engineers)

2. Understand the Law

Working alone is common in the U.S., but OSHA’s General Duty Clause requires organizations to consider and address risks to lone workers performing tasks on fixed and mobile work sites.

Take the time to understand the law before changing your safety management program. That includes reviewing regulations specific to your industry and types of lone workers, including 29 CFR 1910.134 for firefighter respiratory protection, 29 CFR 1910.120 for HazWOPER operations and 29 CFR 1910.146 for permit-required confined space entry.

3. Identify Hazards

Whether the lone workers on your team are operating in a utility substation, food kiosk, laboratory, warehouse or wastewater treatment plant, it’s important to identify and understand the hazards they may encounter while performing their duties. But reviewing the law and identifying obvious job site hazards may not be enough to keep workers safe.

“Additional work sites and risks may be identified during an employer’s comprehensive hazard identification,” says Straub.

4. Assess Risks

Regardless of your legal requirements, you need to assess the risk of the hazards you’ve identified. Straub has several tips for conducting an effective lone worker risk assessment, including these:

  1. Talk to and/or survey lone workers in your organization to get their input.
  2. Evaluate job sites, practices and job hazard analyses for lone work potential.
  3. Analyze loss incidents and near hits where being alone increased the risk of severity.
  4. Review worker exposure to motor vehicle collisions or breakdowns.
  5. Verify lone workers have unrestricted access in and out of their work areas.

5. Control Risks

An added benefit of incorporating these steps for lone workers into your safety management program is that you will likely improve safety and health for others along the way. Straub’s suggested controls for lone-worker-specific risks include:

  1. Engineer out lone work hazards that pose a high risk for serious injuries and fatalities.
  2. Train lone workers to conduct their own task hazard analyses before starting a job.
  3. Substitute toxic chemicals with smaller quantities of less hazardous materials.
  4. Establish a check-in process with a frequency that matches the risk of the task.
  5. Create a preventive and predictive maintenance program for safety-critical equipment.

6. Prohibit Certain Tasks

Beyond implementing those suggested controls, you may need to eliminate certain types of lone work or tasks that present the greatest risk for serious injuries and fatalities.

“Rearrange work schedules so otherwise lone workers are not required to work alone,” says Straub. “Implement a buddy system to provide help or backup personnel.”

Even when lone work is technically permitted, it’s important to communicate with all workers about their right to refuse operating alone if they feel their safety and health are in jeopardy.

7. Supervise Lone Workers

The level of supervision required for lone work depends entirely on the risk of the job at hand, the abilities of the person responsible and their willingness to support safety and health objectives. Your risk assessment should give you a relatively clear road map for making management decisions on a case-by-case basis.

“It should not be left solely to lone workers to decide whether they need direction or assistance,” says Straub.

8. Monitor Lone Workers

Monitoring or tracking lone workers is different than supervising them from a management perspective. It involves keeping tabs on their location, progress and safety while they are isolated. Setting up regular communication intervals in advance — with two-way radios, in-person check-ins, wearable technology or cell phones when service is available — will help you establish a routine and more quickly identify issues, should they arise.

“Methods of communication unacceptable for lone worker monitoring include the sound of power tools, whistling or tapping on tank walls,” says Straub, citing OSHA guidance.

9. Conduct Program Audits

Once you’ve addressed the needs of lone workers as part of your safety management program, track your progress and conduct annual program audits to assess the efficacy of procedures. It’s important that the auditor be a qualified employee who is not participating in the lone worker program and can approach the task objectively.

By interviewing 50% or more of the people involved in lone work at your organization, documenting the findings and following industry best practices, you will ensure you have the information you need to make smart decisions.

10. Focus on Improvement

The final step in your plan-do-check-act cycle is to correct the issues you identify during your program audit or at other points throughout the year. While training enhancements and more in-depth changes may take more time, you can make other changes — such as eliminating high-risk lone work tasks — immediately to keep people safe.

The key is to focus on continuous improvement over time and to pay attention to industry, regulatory or even interpersonal changes that might affect safety outcomes. Staying connected with other experienced safety professionals will help support and motivate your progress.

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