Across all industries, certain workers may be required to work alone. Whether it’s due to staff shortages, late-night shifts, the nature of the job or for other reasons, employees who work alone tend to be more vulnerable than those who have co-workers present. Lone workers may face an increased risk of workplace violence, especially if they work with the public. Additionally, if and when workplace accidents occur, lone workers may lack the support needed to properly respond to the incident or to receive necessary assistance.
By taking a proactive approach, employers can help protect their lone workers and make them more comfortable in their roles. In turn, employers can improve productivity, reduce employee turnover, strengthen their reputations and greatly reduce the likelihood of a costly incident.
Who has the greatest risk?
While employers must manage all lone workers with care, certain categories of workers are especially at risk. Individuals who work with patients, clients or the public may be put in challenging situations if they are working alone. Working with the public means that dozens—maybe even hundreds—of people may be coming in and out of the workplace each day.
When interacting with lone workers, individuals may alter their behavior. If there is only one worker present, people may think they can more easily get away with certain crimes, such as robbery or physical assault. Similarly, if clients or patients are unhappy or frustrated, they may attempt to intimidate, threaten or otherwise take advantage of a lone worker. These risks are magnified for workers who work off-site or who are required to enter an individual’s home.
Workers who perform hazardous work are also especially at risk when working alone. If a workplace accident occurs, no one may be around to give the worker assistance—and if the incident is severe, he or she may be unable to call for help.
Lone workers often suffer from exorbitant amounts of stress, due to the fact that their jobs are more risky. This anxiety can trigger negative health conditions or cause pre-existing conditions to flare up, which can in turn lead to lost productivity, more days off work and high employee turnover.
What is the law?
OSHA states that “employers have a general duty to provide their employees with a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harms,” but there are no specific rules for lone worker safety—only broad guidelines regarding how to stay compliant with the general duty clause.
In general, OSHA and courts across the United States have established that employers violate the general duty clause if:
They fail to keep the workplace free of a hazard to which employees were exposed;
The hazard was recognized;
The hazard was causing or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm; and
There was a feasible and useful method to correct the hazard.
All four of the conditions described above must be present before OSHA can issue a citation under the general duty clause.
How can you minimize or eliminate the risks?
Identifying lone-working risks and putting procedures in place to address those risks is the most important step to keeping your employees safe.
OSHA offers broad guidelines regarding how to stay compliant with the General Duty Clause:
Ensure lone workers have no medical conditions that can make them unsuitable for working alone.
Be aware that some tasks may be too difficult or dangerous to be carried out alone.
Provide some level of supervision.
Put contact and communications procedures in place for lone workers who may be faced with workplace violence.
Check for any specific legal requirements or regulations in their state or industry.
The following are some additional suggestions you should take to minimize or eliminate lone-working risks:
Conduct a workplace hazard assessment of all potential risks a lone worker may face.
Implement workplace safety procedures tailored to the risks your lone workers face.
Ensure all workers receive proper training, and determine a schedule for refresher training.
Create a check-in procedure for lone workers.
Schedule high-risk tasks during a time when another worker is present.
Provide workers with the appropriate protective clothing, protective barriers and escape routes.
Evaluate the design, physical arrangement and materials of the workplace. Modify these to reduce risks, if necessary.
Make sure the worker is visible at all times on a security camera. If this is not possible or applicable, make sure he or she has access to a voice-communication system at all times.
Make sure workers can always see the entrances and exits, so they are aware of who is coming and going. If this is not possible, make sure there are locks in place to prevent entry through doors that workers cannot see.
Install panic buttons in the workspace.
Install a locked drop safe, if employees are handling money.
Make sure the inside and outside of the workplace is well-lit.
Create and regularly practice an emergency action plan.
Investigate all incidents as soon as they arise, and don’t forget to record near misses. Revise emergency procedures and the emergency action plan accordingly.
Solicit input from employees on their work and work conditions in order to come up with the best possible solutions to fix any issues that arise.
It is your legal duty to provide all workers with a safe and healthy workplace, no matter the industry. Our library of extensive resources can help you. Please contact E.B. Cohen for more information on the hazards of working alone.