Working alone is risky business. Every year in North America thousands of lone workers are killed and millions more are injured, making it one of the most dangerous work environments—regardless of industry. Because lone workers are exactly that—alone—small or easily resolved accidents have the potential for outsized consequences. Injuries that complicate calling for help and delays in evacuation or rescue can turn a routine response into a life-or-death scenario. The cost can be staggering —both in terms of human life, and financial implications. Despite all this, lone workers show up every day to offer vital services to their employer and their community.
Keeping lone workers safe begins with having a clear understanding of the inherent risks associated with their work. Even within the risk categories below some elements can be mitigated and managed, while in other cases, awareness and contingency planning is all that can be done.
Location risks can include remoteness; high levels of crime; slip and fall hazards like rain, ice, heights or difficult terrain; difficult to escape spaces, etc. Often these location-based risks are unavoidable, since work must be completed on-site.
The nature of the work itself can be a lone worker risk factor. Jobs that require working with electricity or others forms of high-risk energy; hazardous products or dangerous equipment all represent increased risk. Additionally, jobs that involve handling money or valuables could make workers a target for criminals. Repossession, recovering stolen property and legal process serving can also increase risk.
Public interaction presents an ironic risk for lone workers. While they are not technically alone, these workers are the only representative of their company, and unpredictable human behavior can elevate risk. The rise of pandemic frustration has only increased the sphere of occupations that pose interaction risks. Specific risks include verbal assault, robbery and even physical attack, and can occur in everything from food delivery to in-home healthcare.
The environment is a major factor when it comes to lone worker risk. Outdoor risks include extreme temperatures (heat or cold), unexpected weather events (snow or rain storms) and even the risk of attack from animals can increase danger. Vehicle accidents and breakdowns are risk factors as is driving time. The environment will also include indoor factors such as hazards from falling objects, exposure to harmful bacteria, chemical spills and other environmental risks that could be encountered while working alone.
Research indicates that lone workers who are on the job during the night or early morning are at greater risk of injury or incident. Fatigue, tired drivers, higher crime rates and animal encounters all contribute to this issue.
Individual employees may have different risk profiles depending on their training and experience. Have they been trained in first aid, communication systems repair, vehicle breakdowns, relevant administrative procedures, and/or outdoor survival? Do they have any pre-existing medical conditions that increase risk?
Some representatives of your organization, like a high-profile CEO or politician, may be at an increased risk purely based on their fame and perceived importance. Issues could include verbal and physical attacks.
By definition, uncontrollable risks are exactly that—uncontrollable. Uncontrollable, however, does not equate to being helpless. The most effective way to protect against uncontrollable risk is to have a system in place that allows the greatest capacity for communication. Do you have a communication system your employees can use to call for help in the event of an emergency? Will the emergency communication system work properly in all situations? If the communication system is located in a vehicle, do you need alternative arrangements to cover the person when they are away from the vehicle? If an employee is incapacitated, or unable to reach a certain designated area, can they still summon help? Is there a way to alert support in the event of missed check-ins?
As cliché as it sounds, preparation and forethought can be a life-saving difference. Regardless of industry or risk, there are processes that be put in place to make sure people get the help they need when they need—or better yet, never need it at all.