Working alone – is it legal, is it safe?

People who work alone could be at increased risk through using moving machinery or handling chemicals without help, or being placed under stress through social isolation. But in legal terms, there is no simple answer which applies in all circumstances.

Can people legally work alone?

There is no specific legal prohibition on working alone, but the general legal duties of employers under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (2004) still apply.

"An employer shall provide and maintain so far as is reasonably practicable for employees a working environment that is safe and without risks to health." [Section 21(1)]

Establishing safe working conditions for lone workers is no different from organising the safety of other employees. Employers should identify the hazards of the work, assess the risks involved, and implement changes to the workplace and safe working arrangements to ensure the risks are either eliminated or adequately controlled. When it is not possible to devise arrangements for the work to be done safely by one person, alternative arrangements providing help or back-up have to be devised.

Lone workers should not be exposed to significantly more risks than employees who work with other people. Precautions should take account of normal working conditions and foreseeable emergency situations, eg, fire, equipment failure, illness and accidents.

Employers have a legal duty to provide facilities for first aid, training and information on plant, hazardous substances, etc, and must monitor and keep of records of accidents and the health of employees. In addition, any requirements under the law applying to other exposed workers also apply to the lone worker - eg confined spaces, electricity, etc.

Employers also have the duty to consult with health and safety representatives.

Of interest: British Columbia, Canada, has a section in its regulations which covers "Working alone or in isolation"  (in Part 4: General Conditions). The regulations include a definition, and then clauses on Hazard identification, elimination and control; Procedures for checking well-being of the worker; Training; Late night retail safety procedures and requirements; Mandatory prepayment for fuel; and a requirement for annual reviews of procedures. 

Who is at risk?

Three broad groups of workers whose activities involve a large percentage of their working time operating in situations without the benefit of interaction with other workers or without supervision are those:

  1. working alone on site
  2. working away from base
  3. homeworkers (including "outworkers")
WorkerHazard
Taxi Drivers Abusive customers, road rage, violence, robbery, road accidents
Social workers, institution staff, community workers Abusive/violent patients/clients/relatives, manual handling (lifting) injuries
Electrical/Maintenance workers Electric shocks, trips, cuts, falls, accidents, confined spaces
Emergency services, security workers Abuse, violence, robbery, traffic hazards, accidents, biological hazards, falls, burns, toxic exposures
Farm/forestry/horticultural workers Animal attacks, weather, machinery accidents, chemicals, falling trees
Home help, care assistants, cleaners Falls, injury, lifting, injuries from garbage handling, infections, needle sticks, chemicals, violence, robbery
Lab workers Chemical over-exposure, biological agents, physical hazards, fires
Meter readers, delivery, postal workers Animal attacks, abusive customers, violence, robbery, accidents
Nursing staff Manual handling injuries, abusive/violent patients, drug handling, robbery, violence
Parking attendants Robbery, violence, abuse, vehicle fumes
Shop/service sector workers Robbery, violence, abuse, manual handling injuries
Public workers Confined spaces, toxic gases, biohazards, slips and falls
Transport workers Abuse, road rage, violence, robbery, road accidents, falling asleep at the wheel, breakdowns/running out of fuel/getting bogged in isolated areas (tragically, several drivers have died as a result)

It is should also be noted that many of the problems of lone working could also apply to pairs of workers who work in isolated areas.

Make it safe - Action for health and safety reps

  • Talk with your members, particularly those who have to work alone for at least some of the time. Discuss with them their ideas and issues.
  • Ensure risk assessments identify lone working on and off site and potential hazards.
  • Investigate if jobs can be re-organised to provide a safer system of work.
  • Raise the following issues with your employer for special attention regarding solitary work (either current or planned):
    • Can the risks of the job be adequately controlled by one person or are more people necessary?
    • Does the workplace present a special risk to the lone worker?
    • Is there a risk of violence?
    • Are women especially at risk if they work alone?
    • Are young workers especially at risk if they work alone?
    • Is there safe access and exit for one person? Can one person safely handle any temporary access equipment, such as portable ladders or trestles?
    • Can all the plant, substances and goods involved in the work be safely handled by one person? The work may involve lifting objects too large for one person, and more than one person may be necessary to operate essential controls for the safe running of equipment.
    • Is the person medically fit and suitable to work alone? Employers need to consider both routine work and foreseeable emergencies, which may impose additional physical and mental burdens on the individual.
    • What training is required to ensure competency in safety matters?
    • What supervision will there be?
    • What checks will be made to ensure people are safe?
    • What happens if a person becomes ill, has an accident, or there is an emergency?
  • Ensure that the employer provides staff, particularly new members, with information on high risk geographical areas or jobs.
  • Ensure that there is a system in place which records staff whereabouts.
  • Ensure that there is a system in place whereby safe completion of jobs is reported.
  • Consider proposing the following additional measures:
    • Buddy system: A second person is assigned to work with the first, because the job cannot be done safely alone. This may particularly be the case with home or community visits
    • Communications: Telephones, mobile telephones, two way radios or walkie-talkies can be a lifeline in some cases.
    • Electronic and visual monitors: If introduced through proper negotiation these can offer some protection. Personal alarm security systems can also help.
    • Alarms: Many counter, service and care workers also have access to panic buttons. A range of other emergency, personal distress and violent attack alarms are available.
  • Review procedures regularly to make sure they are working.
  • Ensure that all accidents, near misses, and incidents of violence are recorded and studied at regular intervals to prevent further occurrences.

See Also

  • WorkSafe Victoria: Working Alone  webpage and guidance, including a 2011 information sheet Working Alone  [pdf] which provides about identifying and controlling risks associated with working alone, concentrating on occupational violence.   
  • From Comcare: Remote or Isolated Work.
  • from the Western Australia:
  •  Working Alone Safely - Guidelines for employers and employees  This document has been produced by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador (Canada), and may be useful for reps.  From the UK's HSE: Working Alone in Safety - Controlling the risks of solitary work [pdf

Last amended June 2015

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