The Rise of The Lone Worker Creates Challenges for Occupational Safety

By Brye Sargent, CSP

Over the last several years, there’s been a shift in the workplace.  As companies are evolving to better serve their customers, the number of employees who work by themselves is on the rise.  The lone worker has increasingly become a common method for meeting the needs of clients and increasing company sales.  

But as with many changes, there may be some unintended consequences with this shift from working in a team to working remotely.  This is especially true when it comes to providing a safe work environment for these lone workers. 

As we look at the changing landscape of work in the world, it’s easy to use the pandemic as the catalyst for that change.  However, the shift actually began many years before.  Many organizations experimented with remote work as a way to control costs or deal with overcrowded office spaces. 

As technology advanced, consumers were given the option of having work, services, or products come to them.  The days of running errands and visiting businesses in person slowly shifted to an economy where consumers expected businesses to come to them.  Inadvertently, creating more lone-worker jobs. 

When the pandemic went around the globe, these experiments in remote work and the availability of “come to you” services grew exponentially.  Covid didn’t create the lone worker environment, it accelerated a shift that was already happening and normalized the expectation of remote work.    

Lone Workers Are a Necessity in Many Organizations 

A lone worker is any job task, duty, or work that’s performed in an environment where the worker is not accompanied by any other representative of the organization.  This could mean they are all by themselves without anyone else around or that they are serving a customer by themselves. 

Here are some examples of lone workers: 

  • Technicians - such as HVAC, cable, internet, phone, or electric 
  • Roadside assistance, automotive repair, locksmiths 
  • Home health workers 
  • Social workers or public service officers during home visits 
  • Sales associates 
  • Delivery drivers, including side hustles such as Uber, DoorDash, Grub Hub, and Postmates 
  • Public speakers, who are hired to speak and attend the event on their own 
  • Public figures, who can be recognized and approached when they are alone 
  • Office work done in a home office 
  • Workers who work in a remote area on company property where there’s little foot traffic, such as small production areas. 

This list is not all-inclusive. But it describes the extent of lone workers in the economy.  Some organizations may not realize they actually employ lone workers because remote work is innate in their operations. 

Many occupations make employing lone workers unavoidable.  The only way the work can be done is by sending an employee outside of a controlled work environment.  Having employees work in teams to avoid lone work is not cost-effective for the organization. 

 Why The Safety of Lone Workers Needs to Be a Priority 

Organizations are liable for everything their workers do, regardless of where the work is performed.  When a lone worker causes accidents, injuries, or harm to the public, it’s the organization that’s responsible.  The same is true if a lone worker is injured in any way; the organization is liable. 

When you send your employees outside the controlled environment of your workplace, you’re trusting they will be safe.  Leaders rely on the training, coaching, and tools they provided these workers to protect the company’s liability and the worker’s safety.  

However, it’s not just the lone worker's actions or behaviors employers need to be concerned about.  Lone workers are exposed to the public.  They are driving on public roads and providing services for the public, or entering unfamiliar homes or environments.  This opens up an uncertain level of risk.  Risks the organization must be prepared for and do what it can to protect against. 

A lone worker could be exposed to a motor vehicle accident, workplace injury, criminal activity, and even acts of violence.  It’s not unheard of for emergency situations to arise and the only representative from the company is the lone worker.  This leaves it to bystanders and emergency services to assist.  And contacting the company is likely not their first priority. 

Organizations need to have contingency plans for how they will handle these situations. 

Protecting Your Lone Worker and Organization 

When an emergency happens, it’s important that the company is made aware of the situation as quickly as possible.  This allows the organization to help its workers, continue to serve its customers, and prepare for any negative publicity.  In addition, it has been shown in claims statistics that a fast response to liability claims helps to reduce costs and protects the company. 

Equipping vehicles with crash detectors, cameras, and automated notification systems allow the managers of remote workers to know when motor vehicle accidents happen.  This gives them the opportunity to act quickly. 

Using personal protection tools can do the same when your workers are not in a crash.  Having a panic button within reach while doing their work can act as an automated notification system when they aren’t in a vehicle.  Giving the lone workers an easy way to call for help when needed.  And giving the company an opportunity to respond without having to hear about it hours later. 

Checking in regularly with your lone workers is also an essential element in lone worker safety.  These check-ins allow management to verbally or electronically see that the worker is behaving as expected.  Being consistent in this process is crucial for detecting anomalies.  The goals of safety check-ins are to verify their safety.  When something is off in the check-in schedule, this can indicate that an incident may have happened and the worker may need assistance. 

The First Step in Lone Worker Safety 

Giving lone workers the tools to stay connected with their management team is important.  However, it’s not the only consideration.  Preparing them for the hazards they may face and how to protect themselves is also important. 

The first step in protecting these lone workers is to do a hazard assessment.  

Lone working is on the rise.  And every employer needs to be aware of the risks this type of work creates for the company.  Protecting lone workers needs to come first.  Don’t wait for the worst to happen before creating a lone-worker program.