Citing worrisome statistics showing lone worker vulnerability to on-the-job injuries, the National Safety Council (NSC) is out with a deep dive into the state of information technology that can be used to improve the margin of safety for those workers.
In a white paper issued in October — “Using Lone Worker Monitoring Technology to Protect Workers” — the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit safety advocate group says digital monitoring technology can be effective in putting eyes and ears on workers in various states of working alone, a practice that could be on the rise. Doing so can alert employers or fellow workers in real time to unsafe practices, injuries, or other dangerous situations lone workers might encounter and require quick response.
In a news release, NSC says digital tools like fall detection devices, proximity sensors, environmental monitors, mobile apps, and panic alarms are proving reliable in protecting lone workers and specifically cites their value in “high-risk” sectors that include construction. Still, given their continuing evolution and relative newness, the technology demands careful review by employers who need to fully understand the complexities and challenges involved in deploying them.
Kenna Carlsen, an NSC senior research associate, says employers’ embrace of digital worker monitoring will depend on early adopters experimenting with different products entering the market and determining what works.
“While further research is imperative to fully understand the impacts of lone worker solutions in the workplace, the National Safety Council encourages employers to continue exploring and piloting these technologies to maximize the safety of their lone workers,” she says.
Although that work is well underway, much remains undiscovered, especially regarding employee acceptance of the practice, which could prove crucial. Concerns over privacy and the potentially cumbersome nature of some solutions could prove to be barriers to widespread deployment. In unionized industries like construction, hurdles could prove to be higher.
“Given the potential data and privacy concerns around any monitoring technology, we expect there to be active discussion between employers and labor unions on lone worker solutions but believe that mutual agreement on approaches for implementation is the best possible outcome, similar to almost any safety topic,” Carlsen says.
But the statistics NSC cites about worker safety, growth in the practice of workers working alone, and their unique vulnerability could tip the scales toward greater future adoption. The report cites research showing an estimated 15% of the workforce could meet the definition of lone worker. Noting that hard statistics are lacking on lone worker injury rates, NSC does cite a 2021 survey that showed 68% of almost 500 companies had an incident involving a lone worker in that past three years, 20% of which were quite or very severe.
With workplace injuries and fatalities nowhere close to moderating — NSC cites Bureau of Labor Statistics data showing some 5,200 fatal workplace injuries in 2021 — lone workers might be considered especially at risk given inherent response time issues and the higher risk for poor decision making.
“Because lone workers often work nontraditional hours or in environments where emergency personnel are not immediately accessible, the outcomes could be more severe if an incident occurs,” says Carlsen. “Where lone work is necessary, technology adds an additional safeguard for workers to communicate if assistance is needed.”
Strictly necessary or not, solo work may become part of more employers’ scripts. Shortages of workers in some industries — construction and related skilled trades a possible prime example — could spur employers to spread workers out, leaving more individuals working more or less alone in an increased amount of situations. NSC, Carlsen says, expects an increase in lone work practices due to shifts in employment modalities and patterns and the potential for automation. In turn, the market for lone worker monitoring technology is expected to rise commensurately, and the user base to nearly double to 780,000 by 2026, by one outside estimate.
Whether electrical workers will be prime candidates for a shift to more solo work isn’t clear. Tasks that involve working with energized circuits (prevalent in the maintenance sphere) largely preclude working alone. Transmission and distribution workers, however, could be more vulnerable to that shift. And in the construction arena, where workers are at premium, working more in relative isolation could be a trend as builders prioritize productivity.
“Construction and maintenance are two higher-risk industries, and we recommend that employers take particular care when looking at lone work situations that are safety sensitive or carry a number of risk factors (e.g. work at height, hot work/electrical work, lone work, non-standard/emergent tasks or situations, etc.),” Carlsen says.
NSC is careful to note that while the rise of monitoring technologies is a positive development, the priority of employers should be to limit risk up front. And an essential part of that is prioritizing the effort to keep workers from working in situations where timely aid and assistance is jeopardized.
“Lone worker monitoring does not eliminate the risk; it merely mitigates the potential negative outcomes should an incident occur,” she says.