Working Alone gets regulatory boost

Over many years OHS regulators in Australia have produced guidance notes and Codes of Practice to assist businesses in addressing the hazard of workers working alone.  The new model Work Heath and Safety (WHS)  Regulations due to be released with several Codes on 26 September 2011 brings the serious hazard of working alone to the front of business’ workplace safety considerations with a specific regulation on control the hazards of “remote or isolated work”.  The inclusion of this hazard overtly in these regulations will mean that addressing the hazard of working alone becomes a legal requirement.

Division 6 of the model WHS Regulations defines “remote or isolated work” as being:

“…in relation to a workers, means work that is isolated from the assistance of other persons because of location, time or nature of work.”

It is worth considering some of the occupations this might apply to:

  • A farmer on a harvester
  • A pizza deliverer
  • A sexworker
  • A cleaner in an office building after hours
  • A real estate agent or realtor
  • An office worker working in the office out of regular hours
  • A worker in a petrol station
  • A street cleaner
  • A person working from home

There are hundreds of others who are at a heightened risk of injury due to the nature of their work, or at a heightened risk of not receiving the appropriate emergency assistance if injured or distressed.

The model WHS regulations state that the hazard must be addressed in line with the Part 3.1 “Managing risks to health and safety”.  The next section of the regulations, section 48 (2) is both good and bad.

The good is that it states that a system of work that includes “effective communication” must be provided to the worker.  That a non-specified but “effective” mode of communication must be provided acknowledges the pace of technological change and the significant role communication plays in reducing isolation.

The bad is that some will jump to the conclusion that carrying a mobile phone is a sufficient safety control.  But coverage can be variable and batteries go flat.  And carrying a phone is only carrying a phone and is not a safe system of work by itself.  Communications must be in the context of managing the hazard and not just pushing the responsibility on to the individual.

Consider the obligations now required to provide a safe system of work and effective communications to those occupations listed above.  What if the cleaner has a poor command of the majority language?  What if the real estate agent has left the mobile phone in the car while showing a client a remote property and the client turns violent?  What if the office worker catching up on work at weekends has a heart attack?  What if the pizza deliverer is involved in a traffic incident?

The bad is also that people misinterpret their obligations under the new model WHS regulations.  The control options must be determined through the application of the risk management principles of Part 3.1 “Managing risks to health and safety”, perhaps one of the most important sections of the regulations and one of the most significant safety management obligations.  The risks and hazards must be addressed according to the Hierarchy of Controls, any control measures must be maintained in order to stay effective, and the control measures must be reviewed, as necessary.

The early paragraphs of this article focus on a particular hazard (working alone) in a particular section of the regulations, a section that mentions effective communication.  The structure of the regulations could encourage people to miss the obligations to manage the risk and jump at the control option listed in the particular section.  OHS regulators are going to have to work hard to emphasise, and re-emphasise, the risk management obligations on business and workers of these regulations.  One of the earliest draft Codes of Practice dealt with risk management and now the significance of that Code is much clearer.

It is also important to note that the Model Work Health and Safety Act states that one of its aims is to the reduce hazards “at the source“.  These new regulations emphasise this aim of hazard and harm elimination.  We will have to wait for prosecutions and case-law to determine the impact that the “reasonably practicable ” option/loophole(?) will have on clarifying definitions.

Working alone is just one of the many workplace safety issues that are acknowledged and, usually, clarified in the new Model Work Health and Safety Regulations.  Expect argument and debate from many interested parties over the next few weeks, particularly on how the psychosocial hazards of fatigue, stress and bullying are addressed.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

2 thoughts on “Working Alone gets regulatory boost”

  1. Kevin,

    OHS legislation in BC has had requirements regarding \”working alone or in isolation\” for many years now. While the use of communication devices has always been a component of the program, more importantly has been the process to set up a call-in/out schedule based on the potential risks and the response to a missed call. Employers have to develop a process to respond in this type of situation; whether it is notification of emergency services or dispatching a supervisor to the site to do a physical check on the worker.
    Do you suggest that the new Austalian legislation is going to prohibit a peron from working alone?

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