March 1, 2019

What is a Lone Worker? Minimizing Height Safety Risk

Anyone who works without supervision in any capacity or industry is classified as a lone worker.

This could include those who work alone while still out in public – like police officers on duty, kiosk workers or mail carriers – or, those who work alone without any contact with other people.

That might include agricultural or forestry workers, security staff, maintenance or repair workers, and those who work separately from others in any workplace including factories, warehouses or construction sites.

It also includes people who work at heights. Working at heights is classified as a high risk activity in a resource on lone workers by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. Because working at heights poses potentially life-threatening risk, it must be heavily weighted in any lone worker risk assessment.

Hazards of lone working at heights

Lone workers can easily find themselves in vulnerable situations.

Depending on the nature of the work, specific dangers to lone workers could involve exposure to chemicals or machinery, excessive heat and noise, accidents, and environmental hazards for those working outdoors.

When it comes to working at heights, the dangers are pretty self-explanatory.

In the event that a fall occurs and secondary fall protection is activated, it is critical that a worker is assisted in a timely manner. If a worker is left dangling in a body harness for too long it can introduce other risks, such as hindered circulation.

Having a second pair of eyes can also make the difference for ensuring that the life-saving equipment is inspected and installed properly to begin with, and that all necessary precautions are followed to a tee.

While employers are responsible for their workers’ health and safety, the workers themselves hold personal responsibility for ensuring their own safety and the safety of those around them.

It is especially important that anyone working alone complies with their employer’s health and safety regulations, and reports any accidents or potentially dangerous situations as quickly as possible.

Lone Working Risk Assessment

Employers are legally required to undergo a risk assessment to determine the specific risks of any given workplace.

This assessment will ultimately determine whether or not any employee can work alone.  More specific legislation in this regard will apply to various industries, and it is the employer’s responsibility to be aware of this legislation and demonstrate compliance in their health and safety regulations.

When conducting a risk assessment, employers should ask themselves several key questions, including:

  • are the unique risks of the job site too much for one person to handle? In other words, in an emergency situation, could one person adequately handle whatever equipment would be needed to manage it appropriately?
  • does the employee have any pre-existing medical conditions that might render them unsuitable to work alone?
  • what training is necessary to ensure that all employees working alone are adequately informed and prepared to handle risky or dangerous situations by themselves?

Following the initial risk assessment, employers can take a number of specific measures to minimize risks to lone workers.

This is especially applicable to those working at heights on construction sites who already face the risk of fall or injury. These measures include:

  • appropriate use of fall protection equipment, in compliance with the manufacturer’s instructions
  • training in health and safety procedures and incident management
  • access to communication devices, like a cellphone or radio
  • automatic warning devices like a panic alarm or automated distress messaging system
  • Check-in procedures
  • Thorough hazard assessment

Working alone : safety tips

Each worker is responsible to comply with their employer’s health and safety procedures. Ensuring personal safety when working alone involves:

  • closely following manufacturer’s instructions on all equipment
  • appropriate inspection of equipment and reporting any damage directly
  • avoiding the use of damaged equipment
  • ensuring access to a communication device in the case of emergency
  • ensuring regular check-ins with employer or supervisor
  • access to a first-aid kit

Work alone policies

Most employers will need to have a specific Work Alone policy that addresses the risks of any given workplace and the specific procedures to be followed in an emergency situation.

While a Work Alone policy is not legally required under OHSA, the lack of such a policy can easily land employers in hot water in the case of accident or injury. With the dangers posed by working at heights, a Work Alone policy is strongly recommended.

The risks of working alone will always be there regardless how frequently lone workers are required. A formal Work Alone policy is applicable even in work situations where employees only work by themselves on an occasional basis.

Broadly speaking, a Work Alone policy should address:

  • Which situations and tasks are deemed unsuitable for workers to be alone
  • Emergency procedures including the proper use of emergency gear, emergency signalling and rescue protocol
  • Supervision requirements – how often to check in on employees, and what communication devices are required for the workers

The policy needs to outline specific requirements for what communication devices must be carried by the worker.

It must also address clear expectations on the employer, supervisors and workers as to who is responsible for checking in and how often.

This includes the responsibility of an employer to check in directly with a worker, or to arrange member of security staff or a supervisor to do so at regular intervals.  It also includes the specific requirements on the worker as to how often to check in from their end.

Depending on the level of hazard as determined by the risk assessment, this interval could be as frequent as every 15 minutes.

Dealing with emergencies

In Ontario, falling from heights is still a leading cause of death and injury in the workplace, despite legislative measures designed to minimize these occurrences by enforcing stricter standards on both employers and their workers.

If nothing else, the statistics should indicate that risks are often not taken seriously enough until they actually cause a real problem.

Developing thorough emergency procedures and protocol and training employees in these protocols – including “worst case scenarios” – should be routine in any workplace, especially those that involve working at heights. Anyone who visits a job site should be informed about emergency procedures as well as any possible danger areas on the site.

Beyond all this, it should be ensured that lone workers have access to first aid facilities and that emergency services can access the job site without any problems if necessary.  In some cases, employers may find it necessary to train their workers in first aid, and workers should also have a basic first aid kit on hand at all times.

Falling from heights is something that happens too often in Ontario workplaces. However, with appropriate training and precautions for lone workers, many dangerous incidents can be prevented or have their damage minimized.

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