Keeping industrial lone workers protected
Lone workers are those operating without the supervision of their co-workers. Working alone is lawful – provided that appropriate measures are in place to keep teams safe in all conditions. Lone work presents a unique challenge for employers and requires assessment of risks and hazards, efforts to mitigate them, plus a programme to ensure lone worker wellbeing around the clock. With the maturity of solutions on the market, an employer would be hard-pressed to claim that it was appropriate not to have done so, should an incident occur.
Research firm Berg Insight’s People Monitoring and Safety Solutions estimates there are more than 50 million lone workers in North America and Europe alone, with many working in industrial settings. Lone worker roles in utility, manufacturing, petrochemical, construction and energy sectors face some of the highest levels of risk, yet many businesses around the world haven’t identified lone worker monitoring as a significant, un-met need.
In some regions, legislation is in place that mandates the need to monitor lone workers, while other jurisdictions rely on a generalised duty of care that requires employers to responsibly administer safety programmes to keep personnel safe.
Clarifying lone work
It is a common misunderstanding that lone workers are those exclusively working alone in remote locations. Businesses cope with ever-changing demands, needing to do more work with fewer people, leading to increased separation of employees on-site or in the field. With this shift, the understanding of who lone workers are has also evolved. A general test of lone work is ‘personnel working out of sight and sound of co-workers’ – these individuals are those who are particularly vulnerable to injury, a health event, process failure and even a security breach. Without real-time awareness that an incident has occurred, businesses will fail to manage the fastest emergency response possible.
Monitoring lone workers
Traditionally, businesses have relied on a few means of keeping lone workers safe. The first is not to let employees work alone – the ‘buddy-system’ pairs employees to take care of each other. While this approach can be effective, it often results in lower productivity and doesn’t accommodate for all scenarios where a pair of employees may require assistance.
Supervisor check-ins are another option, where lone workers receive a periodic spot-check or may need to call in by phone or radio periodically. This approach also wastes productive time and suffers the challenge that discovery of an incident is only as good as the interval between checks. Manual checks on employees can be prone to complacency and the process can fail simply due to someone forgetting to check on a teammate.
Does the lone worker definition apply to personnel working alone for short periods of time? This type of thought is a slippery slope. What is a short period and how much can this vary from day-to-day or hour-to-hour? Relying on employees to run into each other to confirm wellbeing or that an incident has occurred is neither a better nor a best practice.
The future of lone worker safety
Employee-worn technology and monitoring automation are the most robust solutions to keep lone workers safe. Berg Insights estimates there could be as many as 2.2 million lone workers using monitoring technology and services in North America and Europe by 2020.
Businesses have important work to accomplish – to create and deliver products and services for their customers. Time is money, and safety incidents cause downtime and significant costs. Delivering help as quickly as possible is the responsibility of every employer. In our Information Age, this means real-time insights and emergency responses directly to the employee’s exact location. This can only be effectively accomplished with employee-worn technology that facilitates communications and features automatic incident detection and location technology.
Legislation drives change
In the United Kingdom, the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974 – enforced by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) – recognises that common sense and adequate management practices should lead employers toward reasonable safety policies, even without lone worker-specific legislation. The UK has innovated and adopted lone worker practices even without explicit regulations. Now the rest of the world is recognising the risks faced by lone workers, and in some cases are putting specific legislation in place to protect these workers.
Part 28 of the Alberta, Canada Occupational Health and Safety Code 2009 specifically indicates: “An employer must, for any worker working alone, provide an effective communication system consisting of (a) radio communication, (b) landline or cellular telephone communication, or (c) some other effective means of electronic communication that includes regular contact by the employer or designate at intervals appropriate to the nature of the hazard associated with the worker’s work.”
In regions without lone worker specific legislation, employer responsibility could sensibly be considered under a generalised duty of care to the safety of employees. For example, the state of California’s Cal/OSHA has recently implemented Heat Illness Prevention, Title 8 Section 3395 to address the risk presented by heat illness to personnel. This new regulation requires regular employee checks, access to drinking water and shade. This new regulation references employees working alone and specifically indicates “(C) Regular communication with sole employee such as by radio or cellular phone, or (D) Other effective means of observation.”
Innovation drives legislation
New technology and knowhow creates possibilities for businesses – ways of accomplishing goals more efficiently with higher quality and increased safety. As new safety innovations are launched into the market to solve real-world problems, legislation soon follows, capturing improved practices to ensure that all businesses follow suit with programmes that improve workplace safety. The lone worker market has experienced just that.
During the early 2000s, there’s no arguing that the UK was the world epicenter for lone worker monitoring, technology and innovation. Patrick Dealtry, Lone Working Consultant at Lone Working Group Ltd, attributes the UK’s early recognition of the lone worker challenge to its success.
“Although not lone worker specific, legislation clearly stated that the safety and security of employees was a management responsibility with significant consequences if not regarded” said Patrick. “By introducing a standard at an early stage, the market gained credibility.” He added: “It gave a target for suppliers to aim for and a yardstick for customers to evaluate their needs and vendor options.”
In the last decade, other regions similarly discovered the need to monitor vulnerable lone workers, seeing a spread of innovation to other regions, including within Europe and North America. The current landscape of lone worker technology and services is incredibly robust, serving needs from healthcare and housing to industrial scenarios.
Adopting lone worker solutions
Patrick Dealtry identifies a sensible approach to creating and innovating safety programmes. Once a need has been recognised, a simple four-pillar approach is followed.
- Formal risk assessment and hazard mitigation
- Policies and procedures
- Adequate and ongoing training
- Access to help when needed
The reality is that we live and work in a practical world, limited by time and resources – sometimes inherently hazardous activities cannot be avoided. To minimise the consequences, and keep personnel safe from unpredictable threats, appropriate measures must be taken to protect lone workers’ safety.
What is a risk? A risk is the chance that someone may be harmed by a hazard.
What is a hazard? Anything that could cause an employee harm.
The primary requirement of employers is the risk assessment that takes into consideration past events, such as accidents or near-misses, plus proactive observations to understand what may potentially harm an employee. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) outlines five steps to risk assessment:
- Identify the hazards
- Decide how employees may be harmed and who is most vulnerable
- Evaluate the risks and determine necessary precautions
- Record significant findings
- Review and update policies when necessary
Hazard mitigation is a way for businesses to proactively reduce risks to lone workers, as well as limit their potential liability. It requires taking steps to limit hazardous interactions, such as installing railings, signage or protective barriers.
Lone worker policies
A lone worker policy is the keystone of a successful lone worker programme that addresses and guides both employers and employees, and take into consideration the unique roles and hazards lone workers encounter at work. A lone worker policy should include:
- Risk assessment findings
- Robust and inclusive procedures to manage identified risks
- How safety information is to be circulated throughout a company, and procedures to ensure accountability
- Guidelines for training
- The type of work
- The location where work is performed
- The likelihood of assistance being available should an emergency occur
A robust lone worker safety training programme takes into consideration the responsibilities of the employer as well as the employees. Lone workers should understand the unique risks associated with their work environment, as well as how to mitigate these risks. Training should address proper equipment usage, familiarisation of risks and hazards associated with particular roles and policy guidelines.
A significant component of lone worker policy should address the need for a managed and maintained employee training programme for working alone, including proper monitoring equipment use. Having the right technology in place will be useless unless workers know how to properly use it.
Accessing help – emergency response goals
In addition to the hazards presented to all employees, lone workers face the additional risk of not being able to manually call for help in the event of an emergency. To ensure their ongoing safety, lone workers must have access to help and support. Unless a buddy-system is in place, or the lone worker has a regular and reliable supervisor checking in, the worker in distress could be left for an extended period of time without access to help. Automated lone worker monitoring technology addresses these challenges head-on.
Proactive emergency planning improves a business’ ability to respond to a broad range of situations that may occur in a work environment. With monitoring technology, emergency response time is directly measurable – how quickly can you despatch responders to the employee’s exact location?
Connectivity is a key component of managing a swift response. If no nearby coworkers are around, a lone worker in distress requires help from outside the business. British Standard 8484, or BS8484, outlines a standard to ensure vendors providing lone worker services are competent in doing so. BS8484 accreditation allows lone worker monitoring devices to escalate emergency management procedures to the highest levels of a police, ambulance or fire response.
Dealtry helped to drive creation and adoption of BS8484. “BS8484 accreditation enables certified service suppliers to bring the highest level of police response – Level 1 – not normally available through the 999 or 101 system” said Patrick. “Before the police commit themselves to this level of response they need to know that such a request has been verified as genuine, which means that it comes from an organisation that meets BS8484.”
Technology has evolved to not only connect workers with appropriate responders, but to truly and objectively measure response time and map events. Measuring recorded emergency response times provides a measure against which to gauge success.
Modernising lone worker safety
While time and money are limiting factors for all business activities, Berg Insight cites occupational safety regulations, increasing personal insurance costs and higher risk awareness as key drivers in the lone worker safety market. Improved employee productivity is a component of the net value of introducing lone worker safety policies. Though employees working alone typically understand their jobs incorporate risks, workers who feel valued by their company are generally more productive and less inclined to miss work or cut corners.
The modern era of lone worker safety monitoring and technology lies with automation. Automated processes and support technology limit the human factor and complacency in lone worker safety monitoring practices. Equipping lone workers with automated technology to monitor their safety solves this problem while delivering real-time incident alerting to monitoring personnel.
Lone worker technology checklist
Lone worker safety legislation – where it exists – typically requires periodic checks of lone worker safety, either verbally or electronically. But these processes are manually intensive, can impede overall productivity and can be prone to human error or complacency. There is also a trade-off to consider – shorter check-in periods help to detect an incident more quickly but cause a bigger drop in productivity.
Around the world, traditional employee check-in processes and buddy systems are being replaced by technological innovations. There are several functionalities to be aware of that are critical to meeting the needs of monitoring lone workers in industrial settings.
Working alone doesn’t mean that employees need to be alone in a time of need. Monitoring technology and services plus lone worker policies and processes are available to mitigate the risks of lone work. There’s no shortage of available monitoring technology vendors who would be happy to receive your call and help you assess what solutions may be the best option to keep your team safe.