Reducing Risks to Lone Workers Using a Simple Risk Assessment

By Brye Sargent, CSP

Over the past several years, there’s been a culture shift in how, as well as where, services are provided. More often, consumers are expecting their services to come to them. But as the DIY culture shifts to the “Hire Someone” or “Bring it to me” economy, new and unexpected challenges arise.  

The days of everyone working in the same room are shifting to where a large subset is working alone. Employers, however, are not off the hook for ensuring their remote worker's safety; whether their work is performed at home, at a customer’s location, at a domiciled worksite, or in a vehicle. Reducing risks for these lone workers needs to be a priority for every company. 

The first step to reducing risks for employees is to conduct a risk assessment of their work and working environment. This is the foundational piece to developing safe work procedures, job descriptions, and safety policies. Conducting a comprehensive assessment will give clarity on everything workers are exposed to in your location as well as their remote work. 

Reduce Risks Using the Hierarchy of Controls 

A comprehensive risk assessment will provide you with a list of hazards as well as the activities where those hazards are present. For each one, a strategy for reducing risks needs to be created. 

 The hierarchy of controls is the best practice for addressing hazards. It’s a 5-step process for controlling exposure to a hazard. 

  1. Elimination – can the hazard be eliminated either by eliminating the task or changing it so that the hazard isn’t present? 
  2. Substitution – can something else be done instead? Is there a less hazardous process, procedure, equipment, chemical, etc.? 
  3. Engineering – can you engineer the process so that exposure to the hazard is reduced? Examples of engineering controls for remote workers are automated alerts or warnings based on location, time, or activity. 
  4. Administrative – these are the policies and procedures.  These are not as effective as engineered controls because they rely on people to follow them.  For example, you may have a policy for your lone worker to check in before entering the work environment, but they may forget. 
  5. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – the last line of defense to combat unexpected hazards or failure to follow administrative controls. 

Each hazard identified needs to go through the hierarchy of controls, starting from number one. Ask the question of “what” or “how” to eliminate, substitute, or engineer out the hazard. If it can’t be done, then start looking at administrative and PPE controls. 

Creating a Risk Mitigation Strategy 

When reducing risks through the hierarchy of controls, there needs to be consideration for the budget of the organization. Even if there are options for elimination, substitution, or engineering, if it would cause a hardship for the organization, they can choose a more budget-friendly option. 

For example, one hazard of lone workers is the fact that when something happens that puts them at risk, they are on their own to handle it. What if they are incapacitated or their normal mode of communication isn’t working?  

Lone workers are inherently more at risk than a team or teams of workers. When working in teams, they could look out for each other, but lone workers are on their own. How can this risk be mitigated? 

  • One way to handle it is to always have your employees work in teams. But this may not be economically feasible for the organization. The salary of a second worker may double the costs of the job. 
  • Another option is to require them to manually check in periodically (calling/SMS). This is an administrative control but will still take many hours to keep up with. Plus, there is the issue of human behaviour and errors. 

Is there a better way?  Something less prone to errors but cost-effective for the organization. 

This is an example of creating a mitigation strategy. Leaders in the organization need to carefully weigh how workers are protected. And they need to consider safety, operations, and customer or public perception. 

For each hazard identified, these hard questions need to be answered and decisions made. 

Reducing Risks with Standard Operating Procedures 

Once a mitigation strategy is developed, create a plan for how to reduce the risk and make it as detailed as possible. It should describe the exact actions to be taken when those actions should be taken, and in what situations they should be taken. Being very clear in your mitigation strategy will help ensure its success in protecting employees from risks. 

This plan becomes part of the company’s standard operating procedures. Having step-by-step instructions on how to do the job or task helps not only protect workers, but also improves quality, service, and expenses. 

Integrating these safe work practices into the day-to-day operations of the organization sets the tone that the organization looks out for its workers in and out of the office. This will lead to better job satisfaction and reduced turnover, resulting in cost savings. 

Never see reducing risks as separate from the organizational process.  Make reducing risks the 'way you do business’. 

Reducing Risks for Unanticipated Hazards 

Risks can only be assessed for known situations, but there may be times that your workers face new environments and unknown risks. The baseline job or task risk assessment is a start, but it shouldn’t be the only one used in these situations. In these cases, a site or on-job level risk assessment can be done.  

This is the type of assessment completed by your lone worker when they arrive at their worksite. They can be trained on how to identify risks and how to do a risk assessment. It can be a company policy that a risk assessment is completed before commencing work. 

Using the hierarchy of controls, this requirement may be administrative or engineered. It can be company policy to complete the assessment and record it electronically or on paper. To remove human error, an automated tool can alert the worker to complete the assessment and notify the supervisor if it’s not completed.  

Either way, having a system for assessing risks before entering a work site or environment is crucial to reducing risks for your workers.