Lone Worker Safety Strategies & Best Practices

Sept. 30, 2022
Lone workers experience higher risks of harm and accidents, but it doesn't have to be that way.

Americans drink a lot of water. The average adult drinks nearly 200 gallons every year. All of this clean water comes from the more than 150,000 public water systems in the United States.

So how does a nation provide such large amounts of potable water to its millions of thirsty citizens? Quite simply, it requires skilled workers. Yes, infrastructure and a water source are also integral, however it is the roughly 200,000 dedicated water workers in public water systems and treatment plants who work around the clock, sometimes alone and in isolation, leaving them more vulnerable to accidents, injuries and worse.

Lone workers in the water industry can be at higher risk of experiencing harm and accidents due to challenges with effective, reliable communication as well as the unavoidable occupational health and safety dangers of working in isolation.

What is a Lone Worker?

Depending on who you ask, the answer may vary, however, across all industries, a lone worker is an employee who performs their job in isolation, separately from coworkers and in circumstances where help is not readily available if needed.

The “lone worker” designation is not static and can be applicable as the work environment and conditions change and evolve. If an employee works in different environments and locations, they may be considered a lone worker part of the time, but as you read further, still require special, lone-working occupational health and safety measures to protect their safety.

There are six categories of lone workers, which include:

  1. Workers who perform work away from the public in remote locations or confined spaces, such water utility workers.
  2. Workers who travel alone and do not interact with customers, such as truck drivers.
  3. Workers who travel from a head office and interact with customers, such as home healthcare workers.
  4. Workers who perform their jobs from home, such as online educators.
  5. Workers who are located at an isolated site, such as security workers.
  6. Workers who often handle cash, such as taxi drivers.

Who are the Lone Workers in the Water & Wastewater Industry?

While most water employees perform their work in pairs, the nature of the industry requires them to also work in isolation on occasion, putting them at risk of potential hazards. Examples of such work include meter monitoring, wastewater plant supervision, and checking water quality at remote locations.

What Safety Challenges do they Face?

As mentioned earlier, lone water workers face unique safety challenges because they are isolated – sometimes by miles of remote land or merely a few feet of concrete while working in a tunnel. This means that help may not be readily available should they experience an emergency in which their well-being – and life – is at risk.

Confined Spaces

One of the most significant safety hazards that water employees face is performing work in confined spaces and the additional dangers that come with it. What makes work in confined spaces so dangerous is the difficulty or lack of access to the worker should they need immediate help. Confined-space work environments in water and wastewater can include storage tanks, tunnels, trenches, culverts, sump and valve pits, as well as lift stations.

Additionally, on the other hand, confined spaces may lack adequate oxygen, causing the lone worker to pass out, collapse and put them at risk of fall and head injuries.

Toxic Gases, Chemicals & Biohazards

When working in confined spaces, a very serious threat is exposure to toxic gases and chemicals. This is usually the result of aerosols which contaminate the confined space work area with pathogens and chemicals that are harmful when inhaled.

On top of that, due to the primary objective of providing clean water, these lone workers may also work in the presence of harmful microbiological organisms, viruses, and toxins. Exposure to these biohazards can result in respiratory, gastrointestinal and parasitic infections causing a wide range of illnesses from various strains of meningitis, to HIV, to tuberculosis.

Violence & Wildlife

The water that these people work so hard to keep clean and clear, is constantly flowing into public buildings, our homes and other needed infrastructure throughout our communities. With that comes inevitable interaction and engagement with the public, which can turn violent sometimes. Particularly when the work can cause delays in public life, conflict can occur, putting the lone worker at risk because they do not have a coworker to help.

In addition to violent members of the public, lone water workers may also encounter dangerous, aggressive wildlife when performing work in remote locations. Even though these incidents are rare, the consequences of such interactions can be very serious.

Mental Health

The safety hazards mentioned above can be stressful for the lone worker, impacting their mental and emotional health. But compound the strain of these hazards with the psychological impact of working alone, and the mental health of a lone worker can suffer.

When an employee does not feel safe, their overall well-being is shaken, impacting their happiness as well as their productivity and quality of work.

Travel

Again, due to the public nature of the water and wastewater industry, many of these people need to travel as part of their jobs. This can mean going into people’s homes or into remote, rural locations to perform repairs, requiring time on the road. Because they can potentially spend many hours traveling, water workers are at risk of vehicular accidents and other risks related to journey management for work.

Especially when employees spend a lot of time traveling, the safety hazards it presents need to be considered and mitigated as much as possible.

How can Employers Protect Lone Water Workers?

With so many complex and dynamic OHS hazards facing their lone water workers, how do managers and employers protect these people?

To put it simply, these lone workers require an equally dynamic suite of safety measures to combat these different types of hazards effectively. Thankfully, these people can be protected without breaking the bank or breaking their routine and operations.

Leverage the Team

When looking to protect your people, start with your people. This means creating an environment where they feel safe and comfortable to speak up about safety issues because they know better than anyone the dangers they might encounter while on the job. Speak to the employees who have years of experience and can offer valuable insight into safety issues. Likewise, consult newer or younger workers who can also provide an alternative (but valuable) perspective on your workplace safety and what can be done to improve it.

Leverage Technology

Employers must look at current technology and devices when protecting lone workers, particularly those working in geographically remote locations. The safety market is robust with a full range of technologies to protect workers from a range of safety hazards. Such examples include advanced motion features, hazardous gas detection, as well as highly accurate satellite and GPS location monitoring. When exploring this market, first identify the safety hazards you are dealing with and then research a technology that will help remedy it.

Leverage Programming & Planning

Workplace safety can be very reactive, protecting the worker when the accident happens through measures that include emergency protocols and even the simple safety harness.

However you plan your workplace safety, make sure you start with a general safety program that documents safety policy such as violence prevention, safety requirements and how to implement effective safety measures. The American Water Works Association provides a free guide for establishing a safety program in water utilities.

When developing a safety program, it is imperative that exhaustive research is performed on all health and safety rules, standards, and regulations and legislation that apply to the workplace and its jurisdiction. It is also crucial the program remains up-to-date according to the latest safety legislation and regulations.

Pay Attention & Listen

Ultimately, the employer must have a pulse on the OHS landscape of the workplace, listening to those who know best, the employees and lone workers. Within the various circumstances and environments lone water employees work in, it is up to the employer and the team to constantly evaluate and assess new ways to improve safety and as a result, their happiness and productivity as well.

Author Information: Gen Handley is marketing and growth coordinator for Tsunami Solutions/Safetyline Lone Worker. Handley can be reached at [email protected].

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