Special considerations for lone and remote workers

remoteworkerAn old saying claims that there’s safety in numbers. The idea that people will look out for one another’s well-being is the foundation of communities and many workplaces. If a worker notices that another worker is in a potentially dangerous situation, or is in need of aid, he can step in and provide advice or support.

But what about workers who perform their tasks alone, often dozens of miles away from their co-workers? How can an employer ensure their safety? It’s an important question, because the law charges employers with the responsibility for looking after their workers whether they perform tasks in groups or venture long distances by themselves.

Who are lone and remote workers?

Lone and remote workers tend to fall into two categories. Some may work in facilities that employ hundreds of people, but perform their tasks in little-used areas or at times when nobody else is around. For example, a factory that’s busy and filled with hundreds of employees during the day may be staffed by no more than a night watchman and a custodian at night. A delivery truck driver who brings products to customers who are long distances away may also be considered a remote worker.

The second category involves workers who travel to perform work at other locations, such as customer sites. An example could be someone who inspects and performs basic repairs to electrical transmission lines. While he may be based out of your main office, he spends three weeks a month driving on gravel roads in out-of-the-way places. A remote worker may also perform tasks in parts of customer facilities that employees typically don’t enter because they present special hazards.

These workers perform a large share of their tasks with nobody else around, and many of those tasks may be highly hazardous. If they become ill or are injured, nobody may see them for hours or even days.

Planning for worker safety

Creating a safety plan always begins with an assessment of the tasks that will be performed and the hazards associated with those tasks. That applies whether the work will take place in the middle of the headquarters office or in a desolate field a thousand miles away. (Always check worker-safety laws in the state and any municipality in which work is being performed to identify any additional requirements or expectations those laws create.)

Determining the hazards for distant work may be more challenging, because it’s more difficult to see the actual hazards. Add in the potential effects of weather, and creating the plan becomes more complex. However, it’s important for the plan to be inclusive and comprehensive. It should reinforce the company’s safety policy and detail steps to mitigate the hazards that may be encountered.

The plan should spell out limits for what the worker is permitted to do while in the field, along with prohibitions for tasks that cannot be completed safely. It should also verify that the worker has adequate training for the tasks that will be performed.

If the assessment determines that a lone worker cannot safely perform the task, the employer must either address the nature of the hazard or find another solution. It may be necessary to send additional workers to the location to help the first worker. In addition, if circumstances lead the worker to believe that the task cannot be performed without compromising safety, he must have the right to refuse to perform it without suffering a penalty.

Staying in contact

Because the worker will be at a distance, the safety plan should include elements that address ongoing communication and monitoring the worker’s well-being. At the very least, the company should always be aware of the worker’s current location. Requiring the worker to check in by radio or phone several times a day is one way to verify that the worker is safe. The plan should include contact numbers for local first responders in the event the company is unable to communicate with the worker at the specified time. One of those regular contacts may be a message to confirm that the worker has completed the day’s tasks and has returned to the hotel or other temporary lodging location.

An alternative that’s available today is personal safety devices that keep workers linked to the company and to local first responders. Similar to the devices often worn by senior citizens who live alone, they give the worker a simple way to summon help when needed. Although they may be costly, it’s tough to put a value on the peace of mind they provide.

Verify and update

If possible, the plan should include some kind of regular visits or reviews from supervisors to verify that the employee is following the provisions of the plan, and that the plan hasn’t missed any potential hazards at the jobsite.

A safety plan is a living document that should be reviewed regularly and updated as needed. That’s especially important if the environment in which the remote work changes regularly, whether that involves a different location, different type of topography, or variations in weather. There may also be new knowledge or newly available technology that can make the tasks even safer, and those should be incorporated as soon as possible.

Finally, make sure the worker has continuous input into the safely plan. As he encounters changing conditions, nobody is better equipped to identify changes in hazards or procedures. The knowledge your safety effort gains from the field will help you become more effective at ensuring the safety of all workers, no matter where they’re at or when they’re there.

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