Whether your workers work at your site, within your factory or are out on the road, the obligations to ensure their health, safety and welfare are always present. With lone workers, however, the way in which you fulfil those obligations and the controls and monitoring that is available to you change significantly.

The obligation to ensure against risk is a high one, as simply exposing the worker to risk can be enough to have breached the legislation. So how then do you protect a worker whose role requires them to work remotely or alone?

There are many examples of remote workers, such as a remote welfare or healthcare worker, drivers, farmers, researchers or drillers. In the course of their work, each worker performs any number of varied activities; therefore, providing protection for a worker whose role requires them to work remotely or alone can be difficult.

It is important consider the type of activities the worker is going to be expected to undertake, such as:

  • Will they be entering a person's house and exposed to the risk of violence?
  • Will they be working in harsh environmental conditions with limited phone coverage, or hot or cold weather?
  • Will they be operating large and powerful equipment in remote areas away from medical care?
  • Will they be required to drive long distances?

A comprehensive risk assessment should be conducted regarding the activities the worker will do and the risks that arise within those activities. Controls should then be identified and implemented.

It is important that considerations regarding adequate welfare facilities and health considerations are addressed. Particularly given the increase in psychological and stress-related injuries that are occurring and the research conducted into the mental health effects of long-distance or remote work environments. Regulators will be looking to see that all these issues are addressed.

Consider what  technology is available to assist. Not just in terms of assisting the person in regards to the risk or performance of their task, but to assist the business in managing and monitoring. For example:

  • Is there a tracking or duress system available?
  • Is it as simple as using GPS phone tracking?
  • Do they need to call in at set times or is it about informing them of the risks and providing an action response plan to specific triggers?

Solutions that best suit will depend on the nature, severity and likelihood of the risk.

Providing adequate supervision in the context of this working environment is difficult, as these types of workers generally work alone or in very small groups. It is therefore difficult to monitor compliance with the systems or the adequacy of the controls.

The nature or location of the work may make engineering controls to remove the risk difficult to implement. Administrative controls are lower on the hierarchy of control, and they require strong monitoring and enforcement to be effective in managing the risk. They need to be supported by strong training and a culture of proactive risk identification, where working safely is how you do business.

The culture of the workplace is important for long-distance and remote-style workers, as they need to engage with the systems, take them on and make them part of the way in which they approach their work. They also need to take a proactive approach to identifying risks and changes to their environment as well as ways that they can control or manage those changes.

Key ways to improve supervision of workers of this kind could be through the use of technology, such as phones and video calls. Similarly, supervision can be evidenced through the review of paperwork that is submitted. It is important that documents relevant to risk identification, such as on-the-job or pre-task assessments, are properly completed and reflect changes to the environment. This is important not only in focusing the mind on risk, but in maintaining the workplace's safety culture.

If poor quality or partially completed assessments are accepted, and these are key to safety systems, it reflects a poor commitment to safety. To make it clear that working safely is important, supervisors need to maintain high standards, be engaged and ask questions about safety assessments, and demonstrate knowledge about, and raise awareness of, procedures and processes. When they are meeting or engaging with lone workers, safety, welfare and health should be discussed with them and they should be encouraged to raise any issues or concerns. It is also a good idea to encourage workers to demonstrate that they know how to identify risks and how they controlled situations where risks have arisen.

Support processes, such as indicator monitoring, can be used to observe the effectiveness of the controls in place and the supervision being provided. These could be in the form of equipment purchased, site inspections completed, training provided, monitoring of improvement in training, proactive identification of hazards, use of employee assistance programs or engagement with welfare programs, analysis of incidents of particular types, completion of inspections, provision of facilities, attendance at meetings or phone/video conferences, vehicle maintenance, response to communications and safety observations, and perception surveys.

It's important to have a variety of indicators to understand what has occurred and the performance of existing systems to help directors and senior executives to meet their due diligence obligations. It will not be possible to show that resources are allocated appropriately if the risks associated with lone or remote workers are not known, if analysis of data indicates that the risks are not properly addressed or if there is a culture of non-compliance.

If an incident occurs, the regulator will collect and examine system documentation, maintenance records (where appropriate), safety observations, safety committee records, safe work procedures, and training content and attendance records. It may be that workers and senior leaders will be required to attend interviews or respond to questions regarding their own actions, knowledge of the safety management systems and processes, and the work being undertaken. The information collected during the investigation by the regulator then forms the brief of evidence, which is used in the prosecution proceedings and, if necessary, coronial proceedings.  This documentation and information will form part of the evidence relied upon by the Prosecutor or by Counsel assisting the coroner and will be considered by the Court to determine conviction, penalties or, in the case of coronial proceedings, recommendations. 

Aside from the potential financial penalties that can be imposed as a result of a conviction, businesses also face impacts to their productivity and reputation, and more hidden costs associated with having key workers focused on litigation rather than your business. The proceedings themselves can take anywhere between two to four years or more, depending on the nature of the proceedings and whether an inquest needs to be held.

This article was first published in the August/September 2015 issue of Safety Solutions magazine. Click here to see a PDF of the original article.