Working in Isolation: Protecting Your Most Vulnerable Employees

Working in Isolation: Protecting Your Most Vulnerable Employees

Many oil and gas workers can operate as lone workers. Fortunately, there are technologies that can help protect isolated and remote employees.

Various oil and gas industry employees such as pipeline inspectors and maintenance workers working on their own can be exposed to higher levels of risk due to the remote nature of their work.

The potential impact of any incident or injury that happens to a lone employee working in a remote area is magnified due to a delay in getting help for that employee. This makes remote workers a particularly vulnerable part of your workforce.

All the risks that would normally impact an employee working in a central location, such as falling from heights, working with electricity, confined spaces or chemical exposure, become amplified when the employee is isolated or in a remote area.

Consider a lineman getting called to a site in a densely populated downtown area; if he or she suffers an injury, no more than a couple of minutes would pass before someone would notice, and help would be on the way.

Now consider the same lineman getting called to fix the trouble in a rural area with nobody around for miles. Nobody to see a fall, and nobody to hear a call for help. An injured, unconscious or incapacitated employee could go unseen for hours or even days.

Lucky for us, there is new technology available that enables 24/7 worker connectivity and significantly reduces risk to this vulnerable group.

Today, we have technology options that connect even the most isolated employees to a real-time response plan in the event of an incident or emergency. In this article, we’ll review the technology options available, and which scenarios they are best suited to.

Tech Overview

There are three main categories of technology for remote or lone workers: smartphone apps, satellite devices and wearables.

Smartphone apps tend to be a more cost-effective option and are best implemented across organizations that offer company-provided smartphones to employees. Otherwise, adoption may be difficult if employers are trying to force employees to download apps on their personal phones. End users tend to like smartphone apps because it means they don’t have to carry an additional piece of equipment, and over the past few years, the user interfaces of these apps have become much more user-friendly.

Satellite devices are generally more robust and durable than smartphone apps but come at a premium price point. For employees that work in remote areas with no cell service, a satellite device is required. Organizations can, however, save money by purchasing satellite devices that have gas detection capabilities, meaning they can get two core functionalities in one device.

Lastly, we have wearable devices. Wearables like watches or wrist straps are popular for tracking employee temperature and fatigue management. Wearables are also commonly utilized for discreet SOS notifications. These devices are meant to extend and complement a safety solution or software.

All three options have one thing in common: they need to be supported by effective 24/7 monitoring to give the desired result.

Connected worker technology enables an effective response to incidents or emergencies. Technology is the first part of the equation—giving the employee the ability to communicate distress no matter where they are. The second (and most important) part is to actually respond to the emergency in a timely manner.

Organizations can choose to have supervisors and managers monitor alerts or they can outsource to a dedicated third-party monitoring service to handle alerts and quarterback escalation procedures.

Apps

The most used function on any lone worker app is the check-in timer. You’ll find this on just about every app, and the duration of the timer can be adjusted based on the risk level of the employee’s environment. For example, an employee in a remote but familiar location may set a two-hour check-in timer, whereas an employee heading to a new location in a harsh environment may set 30- or 15-minute timers.

Most lone worker apps will also have two-way messaging and a panic button. More advanced apps will come with no motion detection as well.

There are even remote working apps that are specific to driving risks, sometimes called Journey Management™ that are complete with trip risk assessment forms for managers to approve or deny based on the risk of the trip.

One of the most important things to consider when you are evaluating a lone worker app, especially if your workforce is comprised of an older demographic, is the user interface. Digital natives will navigate almost any app with ease, however many employees that are not used to smartphone technology will require an intuitive interface.

Overall, smartphone apps are a great way to provide employees with reliable two-way communication, check-in timers and enable effective responses.

Satellite Devices

Lone worker satellite devices are more robust than smartphone apps and often have more features but come at a steeper price point. Along with check-in timers, two-way messaging and panic buttons, satellite devices will also give you real-time GPS data and location, even when employees are outside of cell coverage. Many satellite devices will also provide man-down and no motion functionality. Some satellite devices even have gas detection capabilities and can detect up to four different gases on one device.

Satellite devices are great for workforces that are outside cellular coverage, especially if they are in the wilderness and exact GPS coordinates are crucial in the event of an emergency. These devices are especially popular within the utility, environmental and oil & gas industries.

There are small GPS devices that enable a cell phone to become a satellite device, and users can continue to use the lone worker smartphone app even when outside of cell coverage. The downside to using a device like this is that employees need to remember to bring two devices with them (smartphone plus the device), and they may miss out on other features like fall detection or gas detection.

Wearables

The wearables category consists of devices that extend the safety application or software being used. Wearables come in a wide variety of options from a simple band that is worn on the wrist to a device worn at the hip or chest that can provide no motion and two-way communication.

One of the most attractive features of wearable safety devices is the ability to send discreet SOS. This is particularly important in situations of high hazard or risk that could intensify if a notification is made audible or public. Small and robust, wearable devices can complement or enhance any safety solution to help ensure your employees’ safety.

Enabling Better Incident Response

Technology is making it easier than ever to prevent disaster for this vulnerable group of employees. Employees can work in distant, remote areas and be one tap of a button away from a connected party. The key takeaway is that the technology must be backed up by an immediate response and effective escalation plan. If employees don’t feel confident in the response plan, they will stop using the technology and check-ins altogether.

Something else to consider when choosing a solution that suits your organization’s needs and value outcomes is that the technology is only as good as the data it can provide. Keep this in mind when doing research as the data that each technology offers can be the difference between learning about gaps in your current processes or policies as well as being able to utilize the data to take a proactive approach to safety within your organization.

We mentioned above that organizations can choose to have either a manager or a third party handle the employee alert monitoring. If the organization chooses to utilize managers and supervisors, it is critical that they are available 24/7 to monitor alerts, are trained and familiar with the response plan and remain calm and collected during an emergency—every second counts.

Organizations often choose to partner with a third-party monitoring service to lift the burden and liability off the shoulders of managers and supervisors. A third-party monitoring service also alleviates concerns of “big brother” watching over them and is often the preferred method of monitoring for unionized organizations that want to keep a buffer between management and employee.

This article originally appeared in the June 1, 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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