Alone no more: Technology has revolutionized protections for remote, lone workers
Health & Safety Lone worker Remote Workers Safety Technology surveillance
The car was covered in mud, pushed off a British Columbia highway by a landslide in the Rocky Mountains.
Inside the vehicle were two people — an employee of Crescent Point Energy and her husband, who were on vacation. Her phone, though, was in full work mode and the safety app provided by her employer enabled her to send a message to emergency services.
“The RCMP had driven past them on the highway, thinking they weren’t there,” said Joel Leetzow, president of Aware360, the company behind the SafetyAware app on her phone. “But because of the GPS tracking, they were able to turn around and go back, find them and extract them.”
Last year, the safety systems provided by the Calgary-based company received 400 SOS signals, he said.
“In our world, that constituted 400 employees who went home to dinner with their families last year that might not have otherwise,” he said. “I see that inspiration in our people every day. It’s almost like working at a firehouse. People walk through our door knowing they’re coming to work to save lives.”
Technology has made it impossible to hide — which from a workplace safety standpoint is a great thing, he said. There can be a seamless switch from WiFi to cellular to satellite so the worker doesn’t have to do anything and is still monitored and protected, he said.
One of the most interesting devices to come out this past year is the Bivy Stick, said Leetzow. It’s a headless satellite communicator, meaning it doesn’t require a keyboard, he said.
“Historically, you’d have to realize you’re out of coverage, log in to the satellite device, create the handshake and go into it manually,” said Leetzow. “Now, all that’s done through the app seamlessly — whether you’re in satellite coverage or not.”
There are so many devices available that can monitor workers, including consumer products like the Apple Watch.
“The fall detection on an Apple Watch is, by Apple’s definition, a residential grade device,” he said. “So it works, but it does not work to the point that it’s not going to create false alarms.”
False alarms remain the biggest challenge with any system, because it allows people to say they don’t trust it and therefore won’t use it, he said.
“When we’re dealing with life and safety, it’s imperative that there’s a trust created,” said Leetzow.
There is a real crossroads between consumer and industrial use, and the consumer side is doing a lot of innovations that will be helpful down the road, he said.
An Apple Watch can effectively provide information on heart rates, blood pressure and temperature, which can be useful in predicting and preventing heat stroke or heat exhaustion, he said.
“If we can see a drop in blood pressure, and we can see an increase in human flesh temperature, we can basically predict that person is going to have a heat-related incident,” said Leetzow.
Brandon Egli, customer success manager at St. John’s, N.L.-based Telelink — a company that offers monitoring services — said the consumer devices are getting more powerful and useful in OHS.
“Apple’s new iPhone 14 actually integrated a SOS via satellite connection into their phone,” he said. “Remote working has always been at the mercy of technology, and those remote workers having that connectivity.”
While that just enables messages to be sent out, there are other devices with satellite capability that have things like no motion or fault detection as an extra layer of protection, he said.
“We would get those alerts and we’d be able to dispatch based on the escalation plan and following that through with the client to ensure the individual can get help in the situation that they’re in.”
He’s also seeing increased interest from industries that haven’t typically monitored workers as the number of people working from home has increased in the wake of the pandemic.
“There are organizations that have put in place something as simple as an application that their employees can use to check in,” he said.
AI and being predictive about risk
It can result in a lot of data, which can help both providers and safety professionals move beyond being reactive. The industry has progressed to a point, said Leetzow, where it can truly be more predictive about risk.
“The crossroads for us it two things. One is artificial intelligence and the ability to take datasets from devices and use them to create predictions,” said Leetzow. “The second is the ability to leverage biometric devices for the worker themselves. I think of it as electronic PPE.”
Organizations want vendors to do predictive analytics, because it can lead to tangible improvements in safety and measurable cost savings from workers’ compensation, he said.
He pointed to car insurance companies that offer discounts to drivers who agree to put trackers on their cars that measure their driving habits.
“Well, the same thing is happening in the industrial sector around insurance and maybe more importantly, there are things that are simply uninsurable because the risk is currently unmeasurable,” he said.
Lone workers aren’t always alone
Barry Nakahara, senior manager of prevention field services at WorkSafeBC, said it’s important to remember that a lone worker isn’t necessarily alone.
“We also look at workers in isolation, so you could have a couple of workers way out in the bush surveying,” he said. “They are in fact alone, even though they’re together.”
And lone doesn’t necessarily mean remote, either.
“We’ve seen that for several years, in retail operations — particularly as you move into evening or late night — where staff gets reduced,” said Nakahara, or with people in social services going out into the community.
There is an obligation to keep all these workers safe which, from the employer’s perspective, is relatively simple, he said. It’s about identifying and eliminating hazards, or at least minimizing the hazard, for lone workers, he said.
In B.C., for example, if an employer can’t eliminate the hazard it must “minimize the risk from the hazard to the lowest level practicable using engineering controls, administrative controls or a combination of engineering and administrative controls,” according to the Working Alone or in Isolation regulations in the legislation.
Checking the well-being of a worker
In B.C., the regulations break down the procedures for checking on the well-being of a worker who is assigned to work alone or in isolation. This includes:
- procedure for checking a worker’s well-being must include the time interval between checks and procedure to follow in case the worker can’t be contacted, including provisions for emergency rescue
- a person must be designated to establish contact with the worker at predetermined intervals and the results must be recorded by the person
- a check at the end of the work shift must also be done
- the procedures must be developed in consultation with the joint committee or the worker health and safety representative, as appropriate
- time intervals for checking on a worker must be developed in consultation with the worker assigned to work alone or in isolation.
It also notes that high-risk activities require shorter time intervals between checks. The preferred method is visual or two-way voice contact, but it allows for a one-way system if that’s not practical. It needs to allow the worker to call or signal for help, and which will “send a call for help if the worker does not reset the device after a predetermined interval is acceptable.”