Working Alone

How to Protect Workers Who Work Alone or in Isolation

Date First Published on SafetySmart Compliance: November 4th, 2013
Topics: Workplace Violence |

Lone worker in plant


disgruntled Connecticut beer plant worker walks into the factory with an assault rifle and opens fire killing 9 of his co-workers and eventually himself. This is the kind of thing we think of when we talk about “workplace violence.” Although cases like the 2010 Connecticut beer plant massacre happen all too often, 80% of all workplace homicide victims are actually murdered by complete strangers rather than co-workers. Here’s what you need to do to protect the workers most vulnerable to such attacks: workers who do their job alone or in isolation.

Who’s At Risk

Workers are generally safest when they’re with co-workers, supervisors and others who can render assistance or keep them out of trouble in the first place. That’s why workers who work by themselves are so vulnerable—not just to acts of violence but other hazards. Such workers include individuals who:

  • Work onsite at odd hours like security guards, maintenance staff and special plant production personnel; and
  • Work away from the site that employs them like delivery drivers, couriers and field representatives.

Workers at especially high risk in non-manufacturing sectors include those who work alone at night at gas stations and other small retail establishments and home care nurses who visit potentially violent patients at home.

OSHA & Safety of Workers Working Alone

Unlike California, Oregon and a few other non-OSHA states, federal OSHA doesn’t have a specific standard on workplace violence or working alone. However, not doing enough to protect workers from violence can lead to OSHA citations under the so called “general duty clause” (GDC), Sec. 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which requires employers to keep the workplace safe from “ recognized hazards”  likely to cause death or serious physical harm.

Starting with a 1992 Interpretation Letter, OSHA has taken the position that violence can be one of the “recognized hazards.” And while GDC citations for workplace violence are nothing new, the past 36 months has witnessed a dramatic step-up in such citations.

Moreover, we know from OSHA guidelines covering workers in high risk industries or operations, like health care and social service workers, late night retail operations and taxi drivers, that the GDC duty to protect workers from violence includes those who work alone or in isolation.

The 5 Things OSHA Requires You to Do to Protect Workers Working Alone

From OSHA guidelines and interpretations, we also know the measures OSHA wants employers to take to protect workers who work alone::

1. Do a Hazard Assessment

The first step is to conduct a working alone hazard assessment that would involve:

  • Identifying which of your workers work alone or in isolation;
  • Doing a job hazard analysis (JHA) for each of these workers to assess the hazards they face;
  • Revisiting the assessment at least once a year or more frequently in response to incidents, operational changes and other new conditions that renders the original assessment obsolete.   .
2. Implement Monitoring and Communication Systems

As with other safety hazards, the preferred way to control workplace violence hazards to workers who work alone is to eliminate them completely, e.g., by getting rid of all tasks that require workers to be alone or substituting methods that allow for several workers to perform the task. In the likely event that elimination or substitution aren’t reasonably practicable, the next preference is to manage the hazard using engineering controls. For working alone, engineering controls would include radios, GPS tracking, and other technology and systems that enable you to constantly monitor and communicate with workers when they’re alone.

3. Implement Work Controls

You also need to develop and implement administrative and work controls such as:

  • Safe work procedures for working alone;
  • Buddy systems to minimize time workers spend alone;
  • Communication and monitoring routines; and
  • Rescue or emergency response procedures in case workers get into trouble.
4. Training

You need to provide safety information and training to both workers who are alone and workers who monitor and communicate with them in the terms of your working alone safety policies and procedures and how to carry them out. This might even include self-defense training for workers who work alone.

5. Monitoring

Last but not least, you need to monitor your working alone safety program and ensure it’s working effectively, including identifying and correcting problems.