Working alone – a poorly understood work hazard

Working alone is an established workplace hazard in many industries.  The control measure most applied is “don’t work alone” that is, undertake as many work tasks in isolated location with someone supervising or in close contact.

Modern technology has often been applied as a possible control measure – “deadman switch”, GPS tracking, mobile phone use.  Many of these control measures are second nature to workers in this century and are so commonplace that their safety role is ignored.

Regardless of the many zookeeper attacks that have gained media headlines over recent years, many workers are assaulted and killed while working alone.  Industries that do not have a strong history of safety management most often get caught out by having a staff member injured or killed.  Bosses or industry associations often express wonder at how such an incident could occur.  Safety professionals would have seen the hazard instantly.

The risk of violence from working alone has been a hot topic in Australia since a Victorian female real estate agent was murdered while showing a prospective “client” an isolated property.

HSS0075-Real      -3.477447e+266state-Property            51804944nspection                    afety[1]WorkSafe Victoria has just released a further publication concerning this matter.  The alert is okay in its context but is doing a disservice by being restricted to real estate agents.  Worksafe has more generic guidance but focus on real estate agents? Why not produce similarly detailed guidance guidance that is more broadly applicable to workers in isolation – pizza deliverers, night shift workers, street cleaners, office cleaners a whole raft of occupations that operate alone?

WorkSafe has said previously that real estate agents gain priority because such guidances are developed in conjunction with industry associations.  A legitimate question can be asked, why is a government authority producing guidance for a sector that already has an industry body who can do this?  Shouldn’t an OHS regulator be focusing on those areas that don’t have industry support?

Below are some of the recommended control measures in the latest publication.  SafetyAtWorkBlog’s more generic control measures are in red.

  • having a new client stop by the office and complete a personal identification form before viewing a property to verify details

Have a detailed list of staff work locations and a contact name and (after hours) number for a supervisor at each location

  • inspecting properties during the day. If night inspections are necessary, ensure the agent is accompanied. Identify exit points in case a quick escape is needed

Work with a colleague wherever possible

  • inspecting the property before showing clients,to assess any existing risks or hazards

Consider the security measures of each work area – lighting, access/egress, phone coverage, camera surveillance, etc

  • making an excuse and leaving the site immediately if the client becomes aggressive or makes the agent feel uncomfortable

Cancel the work task at the first sign of hazard

  • calling the office with a pre-assigned emergency code phrase if the agent senses a dangerous situation

The “safe word” control measure is well established in the escort business.  It can work but will only notify of a dangerous situation not eliminate it

  • regularly training staff on safety procedures, including instructions on dealing with potential offenders and incident reporting.

Develop safe work procedures in consultation with staff 

When considering control measures in these situations it may be very useful to understand that prosecutions are likely to consider that employers have undertaken control measures “as far is reasonably practicable” – a movable feast of judgements.  Ask yourself or your client the question, would they prefer to know that an employee is in danger, injured or killed, or would they prefer to have the employee safe and loose a potential client?  The court may consider camera or other technical surveillance to be reasonably practicable but what would your employee who has lost an eye, limb and quality of life think?

Consider other control measures ONLY AFTER elimination has been seriously considered.

Kevin Jones

Other OHS guides concerning working alone are available below

WorkSafe WA

WA Dept of Commerce

Trade Union site

WorkSafe Victoria

Workplace Health & Safety Queensland

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