The subject of “working alone” raises many concerns with respect to worker occupational health and safety risk and exposure. There is a broad spectrum of people who work alone. This could include the convenience store gas bar owner who is the subject of a latenight robbery or the simple failure of a co-worker to be available to notice that a worker has a health episode such as a heart attack, stroke or epileptic fit at work. Regardless of the nature of the risk or hazard that a worker may be exposed to, working alone inherently adds risk to that worker. While not every working alone situation presents a hazardous working condition, it is the other circumstances that are present. Factors to be considered when determining whether a situation is a low or high risk include the work location, type of work being performed, interaction with members of the public, and so on.
The Canadian approach to dealing with this risk has not been consistent or uniform across our 10 provinces and three territories. Even though each province and territory and the federal government has its own occupational health and safety statute, only five jurisdictions specifically address the issue of working alone by legislation or regulation. These are Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, and Saskatchewan. It is arguable that other jurisdictions may address the issue indirectly through general duty clauses. For example, the general duty clause for Ontario requires employers to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection and safety of a worker. However, absent specific legal requirements, the legislation is not clearly requiring employers to take steps to protect workers who are working alone. The general duty clause, unfortunately, is often used after the fact to issue Orders or to commence regulatory OHS charges to blame the employer and senior management if an incident occurs with a worker working alone.
It is crucial for employers to determine what high-risk activities their workers are exposed to, through effective identification, assessment and control methods. Examples of high-risk activities include working at heights; in confined spaces; with hazardous products, equipment or electricity; and working with members of the public, especially when alcohol and money are present, which may lead to the additional hazards of workplace violence and/or harassment.
The protection of lone workers can be achieved by following some basic, yet effective control measures, such as determining the length of time the person will be working alone, determining what communication, if any, is available and its effectiveness. Is it necessary to “see” the person performing the work, or is voice communication adequate? In the event of an emergency, will the communication system be effective, i.e. personal alert device worn by a medical care giver? Also consider the location of the work, type or nature of the work being performed and the characteristics required by the person who is working alone.
To entirely eliminate the practice of working alone would be a challenge. However, employers can take steps to ensure the hazards associated with working alone are minimized and controlled as much as possible.