New technologies help mitigate work-alone risks

When a worker slips and falls, is injured by a machine or is suddenly taken sick, the situation can become critical fast — especially when no one is there to call for help. For companies with employees who work alone, providing immediate assistance for an injured worker is a constant problem.
These companies have traditionally relied on various types of call-in systems, but some are now looking to new technologies to find more effective means of preserving the health, and perhaps the lives, of their workers.

The challenges faced by companies with lone workers are often increased because employees are working in remote locations, says Dave Johnston, safety and environmental manager at Calgary-based Angle Energy. Remote, northern areas often hold added risks — from rough, hilly terrain to wild animals to poor communication networks.

“The highest risk is when you send a person to do an activity in a remote location. That’s where the risk is because it’s impractical in most situations to send two or three people to a location, or two or three vehicles to fix a small problem,” he says.

“And, if it’s a big problem, having two people there injured and down is not the solution.”

A major concern in many industries is chemical injury, Johnston adds. Oil and gas companies, for instance, must protect workers against exposure to sour gas, a natural gas containing hydrogen sulphide (H2S), which is poisonous and can render a person unconscious.

“Unless someone is right there to help them, in the wintertime they will freeze to death in short order. Even in the summertime, if they have a serious injury and can’t get to a communications point, the risk to their health and life is high on our priority of things we need to worry about.”

Russ Cable, owner of Alberta Safety Consulting in Edmonton, says driving is a common work-alone situation that presents many hazards, such as bad weather and cell coverage gaps. Rigorous procedures are usually enforced. A salesperson on the road from Edmonton to Fort McMurray, for example, may be required to contact the office every hour or so, or at certain towns along the way.

“You could have a flat tire. There could be bad road conditions and you end up in a ditch or you’re down in a gully. As far as the company is concerned, you’re still on the way to Fort McMurray,” he says.

Graham Vince, a safety adviser who has worked in the oil and gas industry for seven years, agrees driving is one of the biggest safety challenges for lone workers.

“Driving is documented as the highest risk that workers in the oil and gas industry face, and that’s without actually getting to the remote worksite and working there on their own.”

Procedures are also strict for workers who are called out at night, Johnston says. At Angle Energy, employees must call in when they leave the house, when they arrive at the site, when they finish the task and, finally, when they arrive home.

“It’s a lot of communication, but it’s necessary,” he says. “We can’t take the risk of him walking into a critical situation. It can be weather-related; it can be equipment failure; it can be all kinds of things.”

Johnston’s company uses a 24-hour answering company and, at night, all phones are forwarded to it. Lone workers who call in are asked to provide details on a range of questions, including location, activity and when they plan to call again.

Alberta occupational health and safety law requires a company to have an effective communication system, Cable explains, whenever an employee is required to work in an area where an emergency facility is not readily available. The firm must also do a thorough risk assessment at the worksite.

“Once they’ve identified the risks, the company must come in with an appropriate procedure and policy to protect the worker,” he says.

Checking in
Traditionally, work-alone programs have centred on the check-in system, with workers calling in at set intervals. Most companies, Cable says, rely on cell phones, two-way radios or Mike phones, a phone that may be used to speak to several people simultaneously. Some firms use satellite phones, which require manual check-ins but eliminate the problem of coverage gaps.

In rural areas, the call-in system is often hampered by lack of communication towers. Two-way radio is limited by distance and is often not available, but many areas don’t have cellular coverage either.

“If cell phone or radio is not feasible, then the supervisor may have to show up every half hour or so to check and make sure the worker is still safe,” he says.

Poor or absent coverage, Vince says, often compels workers to go to a booster pack in their truck or drive to a nearby hilltop to check in. Where reception is patchy, a worker may try to call in and not be able to, leading to a false alarm.

“When they don’t call in at their predetermined time, the monitoring company notifies the foreman. Now it means going out and looking for him. There’s no other option,” he says. “You can’t say it’s probably bad reception, and we won’t bother looking yet.”

While the call-in system is generally effective, Johnston says, it doesn’t help the worker who runs into trouble just after calling in and whose next call is not expected for another three or four hours.

“What if he gets injured in the first five minutes and he’s lying there for the rest of the time before anyone realizes there is an issue?” he says.

New technologies
Some oil companies, often looking for an alternative to manual check-ins, began a few years ago to test new technologies, Johnston says. One system provided all-electronic monitoring based primarily on cell and two-way communication towers. If a person didn’t move or was horizontal for a while, it automatically alarmed.

Where Internet is available, data messages can be sent to a PC or laptop at set intervals, with the worker responding within an agreed time.

Another alternative is the panic key fob. Sometimes based on blue tooth technology, the fob has a button that the worker presses in an emergency. Some fobs contain a motion sensor that will trigger a “man-down” alarm to a monitoring station.

Companies are also turning to GPS to provide continuous location tracking for workers and vehicles. Laptops or smartphones equipped with GPS, for example, can be used to determine an injured worker’s exact location.

Angle Energy is currently testing a new personal satellite alarm called CommLink, Johnston says. Provided by Calgary-based PDL Contact Centres, the system includes a portable communications unit, an E-box and pager. When in trouble, the worker pushes a panic alarm button. If the unit senses no motion, it alarms automatically.

The box then selects a satellite or cellular network and sends the alarm to the monitoring centre, where operators call, text and send an e-mail (with a hyperlink to the worker’s location) the company’s emergency staff. Operators also text nearby workers and send a confirmation text to the worker.

The satellite sends texts at predetermined intervals, and the worker responds by pushing two buttons. The two-way texting capability also works inside buildings, even where no cell coverage is available.

“The technology that’s come on the market in the last few years is making working alone a much less risky operation.” Johnston says.

“With satellite technology, you get the alarm, open your computer and look at the GPS. It shows you the exact location, the roads, how to get there, the whole works.”

Many companies are also installing remote communication systems at facilities to monitor production, allowing them to reduce the number of people they send to remote sites, he adds. When a sensor detects an emergency, it sends an alarm directly to the company’s computer system.

“So they can go out with the right number of people, the right equipment and tools. They know what they’re getting into,” he says.

Vince, who believes current technology can completely replace the check-in system, says proper training in company policies and procedures is still essential. Workers must also know how to identify risks. They especially need training in dynamic risk assessment because hazards can change in minutes.

“So, before something occurs, a worker can stand back and say, ‘the hazards are greater than when I arrived. I should get further help, put some other control in place,’” he says.

“So he can re-assess the situation — before he goes ahead and gets hurt.”