Health & safety at a distance: how to keep lone workers safe
As a WSPS Senior Consultant, Shannan Boston spends much of her time travelling to remote locations by car to deliver training. She is one of thousands of Canadians who work alone, some or all of the time, without direct supervision on or off the worksite. They may deliver services and products to homes or businesses, work alone after hours, work at home, or travel to geographically remote areas.
These workers face all sorts of hazards, some of them high risk. It's your legal duty to protect them just as you do other employees, but how do you manage it all from a distance? Shannan has several tips to help you keep your lone workers safe.
The first step
It all starts with a hazard assessment.
- Understand the laws and standards that apply to the work your employee will be doing. Is working alone prohibited in some circumstances?
- Identify and assess the hazards a lone worker may face with help from the worker, others who have done the job, and your joint health and safety committee. In addition to hazards related to equipment and processes, assess factors that could put the lone worker at higher risk, such as accidents, illness, fire or other emergencies, driving and weather conditions, sudden illness, and risk of violence.
- Consider whether new, young or female employees face a higher risk.
- Determine if the worker is suitable for the job. "Working alone can be very challenging," says Shannan, "and not everyone can do it from a psychological health and safety perspective." The worker should also be medically fit to work alone.
Your hazard assessment will determine whether risks are too high or can be controlled, and what changes or preventive measures to put in place.
Essential control measures
These three control measures could make a difference between working safely and working at risk of injury or worse:
- Ensure regular communication between the supervisor and worker. This is critical. Have the worker check in at predetermined times set by the employer - more frequently if there are high risks, says Shannan. During these calls, the supervisor can remind the worker about hazards to watch for, and provide guidance in unexpected situations or emergencies. Cell phones are a must, and if a cell phone won't work at the lone worker's location, provide some other means of communication, such as a satellite phone or radio.
- Training. To minimize hazards, lone workers need the proper knowledge, skills and equipment, beginning with training in safe work practices, communication and emergency procedures. Depending on the risks, training might also focus on violence and harassment, defensive driving and vehicle inspection, and managing risks. If the hazard assessment calls for personal protective equipment, provide it, along with training in its proper use, fit and care.
- Emergencies. Equip lone workers with emergency contact numbers and locations, as well as first aid kits. Include a paper copy of the numbers in case cell phone service is interrupted and the worker needs to use a landline or even a pay phone, as Shannan once had to in Northern Ontario.
Use automatic warning devices to alert you if the worker is in trouble or unconscious. If the risk of violence is present, provide a code word the lone worker can use to let you know. For remote workers, check weather reports in advance to gauge driving conditions and to ensure the worker takes clothing that has the proper degree of insulation for the temperature. A location tracker can guide you to a remote worker who is missing, lost or stranded.
How WSPS can help
Our expert consultants can help you carry out a working alone hazard assessment, develop policies and procedures, and recommend control measures.
As well, WSPS offers:
- classroom training and eCourses on hazard identification, assessment and control,
- free downloads and training for vulnerable workers,
- workplace violence and harassment toolbox and other related resources.