Working Alone

Working Alone Legislation:

Amendment to the Alberta Occupational Health and Safety Act

Overview:

An amendment to the Alberta Occupational Health and Safety Regulations (AR448/83) comes into full force on April 30, 2001. This amendment is designed to ensure that adequate measures are taken to protect workers who are working alone. It requires employers to achieve this by:

  1. assessing all work areas for potential safety hazards
  2. take measures to eliminate or reduce these hazards
  3. have an effective communication system available for the worker to summon help in case of an accident or emergency.

This requires that everyone who supervises people who may have to work alone in an office, vehicle, lab, shop or field site must assess the hazards and develop guidelines to reduce the risks associated with that work. This legislation does not forbid people from working by themselves.

Background:

The Occupational Health and Safety Act is intended to set standards to protect the health and safety of employees in Alberta. Employers have responsibilities are expected to set up safe work practices and also to ensure that these practices are followed. Workers are also expected to cooperate and follow the rules designed to promote health and safety at the workplace. This is the act that requires WHMIS training for workers to inform them of all the hazards they may encounter while doing their job. The amendment was developed, at least partly, as a result of the death of a convenience-store worker after a robbery in Calgary. However, it has application for many different kinds of job situations.

Definitions and Interpretations: 

A worker is considered as “working alone” if the individual is working by his/herself such that assistance is not readily available should some injury, illness or emergency arise. 

Alone is interpreted as being out of visual [and presumably voice] contact with another person for more than a few seconds.
The OH&S Act refers to workers, not just employees, this means that volunteers (unpaid workers) are also covered by the legislation.
The act covers students in laboratories of technical schools and universities and students engaged in on-the-job work experience programs.
Students who are not volunteers or paid for some service are considered to be self-employed. As such, they have a responsibility for complying with the Act but educational institutions like a university are viewed as a “prime contractor” with responsibility for the worksite that houses all the self-employed students (although the details for responsibility are not altogether clear with respect to students, it is obvious that the University has some accountability for ensuring student safety).

Exemptions:

The Act does not apply to:

  • students enrolled in elementary schools
  • students working in a classroom or computer lab
  • students participating in extra curricular activities
  • farmers and ranchers
  • workers working in their own private dwelling
  • domestic workers (nannies, housekeepers)
  • federal government workers and workers in federally-regulated industries (banks, television, radio broadcasting).

What needs to be done if people you supervise are working alone:

  1. Conduct a hazard assessment of the area and work procedures to identify hazards and try to eliminate them. If you cannot eliminate the hazards, then try to minimize or control them.
  2. Make sure there is an effective means of communication available to the worker in case help is needed.
  3. Ensure that all workers are trained and educated in how they are to do their work safely.

You should also consider an assessment of work in areas like offices or reading rooms where no "hazardous activities" are conducted. In these instances, matters of personal security are likely most important. You could advise someone that you expect to return by a certain time so that they might check on you if you are late. This would be much more important if a person had a medical condition that predisposed them to become incapacitated (e.g. epilepsy). Workers and supervisors need to assess the risk of injury for the individuals in all areas, even those where activity risks are considered minimal.

  1. Hazard Assessment
  • in cooperation with the workers, review all aspects of the work that might be done and anticipate the kinds of hazards that might arise. You are looking for risks of occupational injury as well as potential for personal injury from a violent attack.
  • review records of past incidents to help identify potential problems
  • identify what can be done to eliminate or minimize the hazards.
  • the assessment should be written and dated. It should be reviewed and updated as needed.
  • you need a hazard assessment for each different set of conditions. If you have 10 offices with similar activities in each, then one assessment should cover all. However, if money, tobacco and drugs are stored in one of the offices, that would require a different review.

This might include restricting certain activities until another person is present. This is exactly the same as prohibiting certain activities if workers are not properly trained or if they do not have the appropriate safety equipment (a fume-hood for distilling benzene or a safety harness and rope if you are climbing 30 meters up a tree). Some examples of activities that could result in severe personal injury and which should not be attempted without a backup could include things like: distilling phenol, entering into a confined space or one where the atmosphere might be dangerous (a deep metal tank where rusting can deplete the oxygen level), getting close to an animal carcass that has recently been killed (whatever killed it may be close by). Any such activities should be explicitly mentioned in your hazard assessment. It is up to the supervisor in consultation with the workers to identify such situations. The standard that will be applied if a “problem” arises will be by comparing your hazard assessment to others of a similar nature. If other people have identified five hazards in a situation very similar to yours and have taken measures to avoid them while you have not, you will probably be found lacking in discharging your responsibility to help protect workers and could be charged under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Besides injury from personal actions, consider hazards that might arise from other aspects of the work. Are you exposed to personal attack by animals (bears, dogs, elk) including humans? Do you have to travel to remote locations and meet with clients you do not know in their office? You might control risk of personal injury for indoor work by requiring doors be kept shut and locked if you are alone. You might suggest (or require) workers use the services of the Safe Walk program if they are leaving the campus after dark. Adding a check-in and check-out routine may be warranted to know if someone is overdue whether in travel to a worksite or leaving an office to return home.

Further information on preparing a hazard assessment is here and there are some examples of field hazards

  2. Effective Communication: 

In case someone needs help, they need access to a means of communication. This does not mean everyone must be issued a cellular phone or radio although these may be a good idea in some situations. Within the department there are telephones in many rooms. Undergraduate students should be made aware of where telephones are located and who to call (UAPS knows their way around campus while a 911 operator will want your street address; call for help at the university first). If nothing else is available, a tripped fire alarm will bring assistance.

Field work presents a bigger problem with regard to communication. Cell phones may not work where you are located and you may be out of radio contact. In this case, use of satellite phones (e.g. Iridium) or other messaging systems (e.g. inReach - text only) as part of a check-in system should be employed. This protocol must be outlined in the Field Activity Plan that has been prepared by the Principal Investigator. A log book is kept in a base camp and people sign out before they leave indicating route, destination, activity and estimated return time. When they return they check back in. The log must be examined at regular intervals and procedures should have been outlined in case a search has to be mounted. If someone is doing highly dangerous work like felling trees or crawling through sewers, hourly contact frequency would be suggested. The frequency of contact will depend on the nature of the hazard. Even without electronic communication, regular contact could be achieved using flash lights or flags if for instance, people were working on opposite sides of a lake.

Practical:

Look at a sample guideline (DOC, 36kb) that might be used for a teaching or research laboratory.

The process of conducting a hazard assessment and seeking measures to reduce the risks will take some time. Except in simple situations, the assessment will need to be reviewed and updated as conditions change or after talking to colleagues doing similar work. It is hoped that everyone in our department will start now to develop these procedures and hopefully we can share ideas.

Some examples to help you get started:
Please note, these are intended to get you thinking about some scenarios that could occur. The particulars for your situation may dictate a different response.

1. A graduate student working in a chemical laboratory:

Activity:

Potential hazard:

Efforts to minimize hazard:

diluting a strong acid (HCl)

chemical burn to skin, eyes, inhaling vapours

  • work in a fumehood,
  • wear protective clothing (lab coat, goggles, gloves);
  • knows where spill kit is located; knows who to call for help because emergency phone numbers are posted in the lab - OK

handling concentrated hydrofluoric acid

death has occurred from spilling only 250 mL on the skin

prohibited if alone – find a partner to back you up during the procedure; no partner - no procedure.

connect a regulator to a tank of hydrogen

fire or explosion if the tank is damaged due to a fall

person is experienced in procedure; knows how to test for leaks – OK

"

"

person has never done it before or even seen it done- prohibited until supervision is available

testing a new stain on a piece of tissue

possible mutagen or carcinogen

person has never done it before or even seen it done; person is aware of the hazards of carcinogens and is using appropriate protection and procedures - OK

2. An undergraduate student working in a chemical laboratory:

Similar to the graduate student but consider the individuals may have much less experience and may not be familiar with the building or who to contact in an emergency. More activities may be restricted because of their inexperience.

  • post a list of activities that are permitted and those that are not. You may not identify everything that should not be attempted but work within the framework of what the student has previously experienced in the lab. They may have used an ultra centrifuge during their lab but are not allowed to run it without supervision.

  • post a map of where telephones, first aid kit, fire extinguishers, fire alarm pull stations and safety showers are located. (N.B. do not advise anyone to use a fire extinguisher unless they have some experience. They are not firefighters and the appropriate response is to leave the room, shut the door and summon help).

  • provide a list of phone number to call: a teaching assistant, lab coordinator, lab supervisor, safety officer, campus security, campus control centre. Use a large font to make it easier to read in an emergency.

  • try to have students work in pairs if they have to come in at odd hours.

  • make sure they know to keep the door shut and locked when they are alone.

3. Anyone working in an office on campus:

Occupational injury would not normally be anticipated for this situation. However a person could still trip and become injured. The potential risk here is that they are alone and may be subject to personal attack. The door should be kept shut and locked at all times. If there is a glass door or window, consider working out of public view. Post the numbers for Campus Security or Safe Walk on campus. Have people check in and out with someone when they arrive and when they leave to go home.

4. Field research away form a remote base camp:

Activity:

Hazard:

Efforts to minimize hazard:

bird survey conducted on the ground

none other than usual hazards of walking in the woods

  • radio available: check in with someone every 4 hours
  • carry a personal first aid kit
  • carry appropriate clothing, whistle, water, map.
  • carry bear spray

"

"

as above but no radio: OK if you use a check-out and in log book stored in base camp.
log is checked several times a day for overdue workers

retrieving eggs from nest in trees that require you to climb 4 meters up

fall

wear helmet, use harness and rope where appropriate, have a worker on the ground while in the tree - OK

"

"

as in previous but no worker available on ground – prohibited

obtain a hair sample from a recently deceased moose

predator may be close by and may defend the carcass

prohibited if no backup worker with you. Might even be prohibited unless the backup is trained in handling firearms and is carrying a weapon

travel to worksite on an ATV (All Terrain Vehicle)

tip over, fall from seat, run into bushes

driver trained in operation of vehicle;
is wearing suitable boots and protective clothing (long pants, jacket and helmet) - OK

"

"

as previous but no helmet around - prohibited

When you are trying to judge the likelihood and severity of a hazard, consider the factors that are uncontrolled variables: could there be a bear in the area? if you are climbing a tree, footing may be a problem even with appropriate equipment so that’s why you need a backup worker.

  Summary:

All supervisors need to begin a hazard assessment of any situations where workers may have to work alone. You need to identify potential hazards and consider means to reduce or eliminate the risks. I suggest a point form approach to the assessment and the guidelines as long as everything can be made clear. Most of these assessments will include preparing a list of emergency contacts (telephone numbers), how to contact help, and locations of safety equipment and other resources. The assessment must be written and the information communicated to all workers.

  Sources for further information:

1. Working alone guidelines and sample templates from the University of Alberta Office of Environmental Health and Safety.
2. Working Alone Safely A Guide for Employers and Employees. Alberta Human Resources and Employment. 2000. ( workingalone.pdf)
3. Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Regulations. An Explanation of the General Safety Amendment Regulation. “The Working Alone Amendment” II edition. December 2000 (WA 00202). This looks better than the guide.

Please contact me if you would like me to review your assessment.

Tom Hantos 
CW317A (22399) 
tom.hantos@ualberta.ca