Lone Workers Are More Vulnerable Than Ever

Lone Workers Are More Vulnerable Than Ever

A Q&A with worker safety professional, Tom Lotz, on how the pandemic has changed lone worker safety.

“I don’t think anybody in the world has ever seen anything like this,” says Tom Lotz, a Senior Loss Control Consultant for Tokio Marine America, who has more than 30 years’ experience in the worker-safety field. “I’ve worked for insurance companies, I’ve worked for private industry, I’ve worked in the public sector and I’ve worked for insurance brokers, and I’ve never seen anything that has impacted the lone worker as much as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since March 11, 2020, when the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic, there has been an unprecedented number of changes to worker safety, particularly for those working alone and remotely. In a recent PwC survey, one-third of executives said they will need less office space in the near future because of the significant increase in remote work.

Last June, we attended ASSP’s virtual Safety 2020 Professional Development Conference & Exposition where we met a number of professionals from a number of industries who had significant insight into the new direction and future of lone worker safety. One of those people was Tom, whose passion for the worker safety field was infectious and memorable.

From his Nashville, Tennessee home, we spoke to Tom about how lone worker safety has been impacted over the past few months, what employers need to do to ensure lone worker safety, as well as what he sees in the future for the protection of these vulnerable workers.

How has worker safety evolved over the years?

In the early 80s when I started, worker safety still was a pretty new concept and wasn’t a main corporate priority. Now, safety is getting to the point where it’s finally getting accepted from the top level down. But recently, I’m also seeing that safety is viewed as an overhead expense and with all of the issues with COVID, you’re seeing, unfortunately, safety being relegated to the sidelines and the safety supervisors being let go because of cutbacks as a result of shutdown, and loss of productions and monies.

What are some of the biggest changes you've seen in worker safety?

Definitely acceptance. Workers seem to accept the safety efforts more so now as opposed to days when it was more, ‘What do you mean I need a guard on my equipment or wear a harness? I can do this without falling.’ Now, it’s second nature to put your harness on...its second nature to have a guard on a machine. I think in general, the employee is much more safety-aware than before.

Because of COVID-19, are there more lone workers now than ever?

Absolutely. There are more lone workers because of COVID, and it has been increasing over the last 10 years because of the service nature of repairs and more-so the service nature of technology.

Has it become more dangerous for lone workers since the pandemic?

Yes, definitely—at least in the United States because we need to look at the safety of doing the task as well as the political aspect that has kind of bled over into how the employee gets the work done. Some places are requiring staff to wear masks and some aren’t. Some companies are practicing social distancing and some aren’t. Some places are using these practices as statements, so there are a lot of tensions and frustrations that are competing with worker safety that have been exasperated by COVID.

Many lone workers are walking into situations where they have no clue what’s happening. It could be a heightened negative situation where someone has been waiting for you for two days and they’re upset. They might be coming to an environment or home where someone might be sick. The affects their stress levels because they need to get the work done but they don’t want to get sick or go back home and bring something to their family. Lone workers are more vulnerable than ever.

What do you think are the biggest advantages of working alone?

The biggest advantages have to be the flexibility and freedom to do good work – without having a manager looking over your shoulder all the time. If lone work is done safely, it can be a very good situation for the worker and the company.

What are the biggest challenges that come with those benefits?

I think the biggest one is that you don’t have the readily available coworker to bounce ideas off of. You don’t have someone to bounce solutions off of and have to pick up the phone or do video conference call.

What can employers be proactively doing to protect their lone workers these days?

The first thing is to care about them. It’s simple but true. The next thing is to provide them with all of the tools they need to perform their job and to do it as safely as possible. They also need to constantly keep their lone employees informed of what is happening with their job and company, what the status is, and what changes are coming—this includes any new federal, state and county rules and regulations. So, you need to need keep them informed and provide them with any tools they might need, any masks, if they need gloves, if they need hand sanitizer or if they need certain personal protective equipment.

What do you see for the future of lone worker safety?

I see a greater need for technology. I see companies using more and more technology that is usable and trainable for the lone worker. This technology will complement the skills and expertise of these lone workers, increasing their safety on job. This is going be more important after this crisis passes because there will be more lone workers, and the days of everyone being in an office, all the time, are gone.

Moving Forward

Speaking to professionals like Tom is inspiring because they care so much about worker safety and strong safety culture. The future of lone worker safety lies in workers’ emotional wellbeing, new technology and embracing the new normal of more and more people working from home and remotely.

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