Oral Health Group

How to Protect Workers Who Work Alone

March 17, 2013
by sandie

There is a great deal of buzz in the dental community about workplace inspections that are being conducted by the Ministry of Labour. The inspections are occurring and it’s important for all dental offices to prepare for what to expect. Over the next few weeks, these blogs will be addressing the issues surrounding workplace violence and what employers must do to protect their employees.

Dental offices need to show evidence of having an antiviolence program in place that is regularly reviewed and updated. Having a policy posted and signed is not enough. The anti-violence program begins with performing a workplace hazard assessment and then implementing steps that address the potential risks to employees. The program should be evaluated and reviewed regularly to make sure that the program is up to date.
This week’s topic will address how to protect workers who work alone. While it is not always hazardous to work alone, it can be when other circumstances are present. Whether a situation is a high or low risk will depend on the location, type of work, interaction with the public, or the consequences of an emergency, accident, injury, etc. This wide variety of circumstances makes it important to assess each situation individually.
What is meant by working alone?
A person is “alone” at work when they are on their own; when they cannot be seen or heard by another person; and when they cannot expect a visit from another worker. For example, the receptionist or recall coordinator in an office building may be considered a “lone” worker. It is important to consider all situations carefully. Working alone includes all employees who may go for a period of time where they do not have direct contact with a co-worker. This may include when an employee leaves the office to go to the bank.
What are some factors to consider when assessing the workplace or situations?
The following are some points to consider. Each circumstance will be different, so be sure to adapt the questions to suit your situation.
Length of time the person will be working alone:
• What is a reasonable length of time for the person to be alone?
• Is it reasonable for the person to be alone at all?
• How long will the person be alone to finish the job?
• Is it legal for the person to be alone while doing certain activities?
• What time of the day will the person be alone?
• What forms of communication are available?
• Is it necessary to “see” the person, or is voice communication adequate?
• Will emergency communication systems work properly in all situations?
What can be done to help a lone worker stay safe?
Have written policies in place . Ensure you have a written policy that commits your dental office to safeguarding workers who work alone. The purpose and intent of the program is to protect employees in situations that could result in injury or health problems or expose them to possible criminal violence or other adverse conditions. Working alone has been identified as a significant risk factor in regard to work¬place violence.
There are many steps that can be taken to help ensure the safety of the lone worker:
• Assess the hazards of your workplace.
• Talk to employees about their work. Get their input about the work they do and possible solutions.
• Investigate incidents at your workplace, and those from similar workplaces.
• Avoid having a worker be alone whenever possible.
• Take corrective action to prevent or minimize the potential risks of working alone.
• Provide appropriate training and education.
• Report all situations, incidents or ‘near misses’ where being alone increased the severity of the situation. Analyze this information and make changes to office policy where necessary.
• Establish a check-in procedure. Make sure that regular contact is kept with all employees.
• Establish ways to account for people (visually or verbally) while they are working.
• Schedule higher risk tasks to be done during normal business hours, or when another worker capable of helping in an emergency is present.

Choose appropriate control measures which may include:
Possible control methods include:
• A “buddy” system.
• Regular personal checks by another person (visits/walkthroughs by the employer, supervisor, security guard, another worker or police).
• Periodic telephone contact.
• Mechanical or electronic surveillance (e.g., pagers or walkie-talkies, cameras).
• Central monitoring of staff working alone.

In some circumstances, it may be appropriate to use a work permit for working alone. This permit should indicate when (start and end dates), where and for whom the worker will be working. The supervisor and the worker should sign this permit.
What is an example of a check-in procedure?
It is important that a check-in procedure be in place. Decide if a verbal check-in is adequate, or if the employee must be accounted for by a visual check. Make sure your plan is appropriate for both regular business hours as well as after main office hours.
For most lone workers, the telephone will be the main source of contact. If you are away from a main office or work station, the use of a cell phone is very helpful.
An example of a check-in procedure is:
• Prepare a daily work plan so it is known where the lone employee will be and when.
• Identify one main person to be the contact at the office, plus a back up.
• Define under what circumstances the lone employee will check in and how often.
• Stick to the visual check or call-in schedule. You may wish to have a written log of contact.
• Have the contact person call or visit the lone employee periodically to make sure he or she is okay.
• Pick out a code word to be used to identify or confirm that help is needed.
• Develop an emergency action plan to be followed if the lone employee does not check-in when he or she is supposed to.
• If the person is working inside a locked building, how will emergency services be able to get in? (For example: a night cleaner in a secure office building)
• Does the work involve working with money or other valuables?
Train Staff in Ways to Work Alone Safely
This includes:
• The requirement to report suspicious client behaviour and incidents.
• How to determine the risk of specific work situations on a daily basis.
• How to leave a risky situation safely.
• How to identify, prevent, and manage aggressive behaviour.

It is important to note that the employer should create an environment in which concerns can be expressed without fear of reprisal or judgement.
When problems have occurred:
• Provide necessary counseling or help for staff.
• Investigate the incident thoroughly to identify ways to prevent future problems.
• Make the plan discussed above available to a provincial inspector upon request.

In Ontario, all employers, managers and supervisors must do “everything that is reasonable under the circumstances” (Occupational Health and Safety Act, Sec. 25) to ensure that their workers have a healthy and safe workplace. Ensuring that workers working alone is one component of the anti-violence program that all dental offices need to have in place and it begins with a proper assessment. If you require a sample workplace assessment form, contact me at sandie@dentalofficeconsulting.com with “antiviolence assessment” in the subject line.

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2 Comments » for How to Protect Workers Who Work Alone
  1. Sarah Wakefield says:

    antiviolence assessment – please send a sample.
    Thank you.

  2. Ellen Smith says:

    I have found thi article interesting, the work permit pin code is interesting, i would agree that some kind of communication device is useful.

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