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Solo Worker Safety

Posted 7/2/2021

By R. Bruce Wright, CPCU

Utilities can take steps to enhance safety for their employees who work alone.

One basic tenet of worker safety is, “Watch out for one another.” But when it comes to solo work by individual performers, this presents a fundamental challenge. How can you watch a co-worker’s back if that personr is working alone somewhere else?

A solo worker can be anyone who works alone, either in the warehouse or in the field. Perhaps a serviceman is the most obvious example, but meter techs, staking engineers, and others are included too.

By law, employers have a responsibility to protect their workers regardless of whether they’re surrounded by colleagues or alone on an assignment. Developing policies, communicating with workers, and using available technology to track worker location and movement can all help in limiting the risks of working solo.

To minimize the risk of solo work, employers should develop formal procedures to protect employees during working hours and on after-hours work, especially if they’re working alone in isolated areas in the field. So, how do you start? 

Elements of such procedures may include:

  • Risk assessments to determine if a particular job can be done safely by solo workers.
  • Clear training on what solo workers can do in case of emergencies, along with a clear action plan.
  • Defined limits for what is, and is not, allowed for solo work.
  • Requirements for supervisors to make periodic visits to observe lone workers.
  • Regular contact between lone workers and supervisors via phone or radio.
  • Use of automatic warning devices that alert others if signals are not received periodically from a solo worker.

Regulatory questions

The vague language in OSHA’s regulations on solo workers may leave additional questions. One common requirement is for employers to monitor solo workers at “regular intervals.” But what exactly does OSHA mean by “regular intervals”? No time span is specified, so how often is this to be done? Every hour? Once a day? Or somewhere in between?

Regardless of specifics, the burden falls on employers to keep their workers safe.

An employer’s job is not finished once it develops a procedure for monitoring solo workers. It’s important to revisit the issue to monitor chances in the environment including new people, new processes, new equipment. What hazards may now be present that were not found previously? All these things need to be monitored and considered over time.

Turning plans into action

Servicemen or “on call” workers may work after-hours, on weekends, or during holidays. “We have always had concerns about employees working alone,” one manager said. Supervisors have to be diligent in knowing how many locations have solo workers and where they are. His company re-evaluated its solo worker procedures after realizing that it could better protect these workers by investing in newer, more modern technology. They purchased personal safety devices for their solo workers. Devices that can do this range widely in cost, with those using cellular networks and manual signaling coming in relatively cheap, as low as $100, while those that include GPS technology and automatic emergency alerts are more expensive, ranging between $1,500 and $3,000. Regardless, the costs  should be weighed against the possible consequences of someone being severely injured or being stricken by a heart attack, with no one else knowing it, and therefore not being able to get help in a timely fashion.

If you have good employees, and you better have, you certainly want to keep them well. One way to show that you care about them is to invest in their safety, and this is one way of doing that.