Working alone or remotely increases the risk of any job. Exposure to violence, poor access to emergency assistance, and psychological injuries or mental health are the main hazards that increase the risk of remote or isolated work.

As a business (PCBU), you must manage the risks associated with remote or isolated work. This article sets out to help you understand the 3 big WHS risks associated with remote or isolated work and what you can do to address them.

Remote or isolated work: a definition

Remote or isolated workers may be isolated from help because of where or when they are working or the nature of the work they are doing.

For example, staff may be working in locations or at times where it would be difficult for them to be rescued, get medical assistance or be reached by emergency services. Workers may face additional WHS risks if nobody else is around to help with difficult tasks, alert them to hazards, give a second opinion about how to safely do a task, or notice if they are fatigued or making mistakes.

Remote or isolated work: examples

Common examples of remote or isolated work include:

  • aged care workers undertaking a sleepover shift at a refuge or residential unit
  • all-night convenience store and service station attendants
  • cleaners working by themselves in an office building or warehouse facility
  • community support workers visiting clients in their homes or undertaking outreach services in the community
  • doctors, health and community workers in duty or interview rooms on-site or when caring for clients off-site
  • employees working from home who may live alone or who have their partner and children away during the workday
  • mining and construction workers who work in isolation and in remote locations
  • rural and agricultural workers
  • sales representatives, including real estate agents and finance brokers
  • scientists, park range or others undertaking fieldwork
  • staff attending conferences and external events
  • staff checking emails at a caf in between meetings, or who are in transit at airports and hotels
  • transport freight and public transport drivers
  • volunteers running a professional development or industry event

Remote or isolated work: Managing WHS Risks

As a business (PCBU), you must manage the risks associated with remote or isolated work.

When managing the risks, consideration should be given to:

  • the length of time the person may be working alone
  • the time of day when a person may be working alone
  • a communication plan with workers
  • the location of the work
  • the nature of the work, as well as the skills and capabilities of the worker, including any medical considerations.

Remote or isolated work: Big WHS risk #1: Occupational violence and aggression

WorkSafe authorities have identified occupational violence and aggression in the workplace as one of the WHS risks that are on the rise. A particular area of focus to ensure employers have WHS safety measures in place is occupational violence and aggression for lone workers who are working alone, or in other words, for remote or isolated workers.

Among those at high risk for incidents of occupational violence and aggression are workers who exchange money with the public, delivery drivers, community service, disability support workers, healthcare professionals, public service workers, customer service agents, law enforcement personnel, and those who work alone or in small groups.

Several things can be done to reduce the risk of occupational violence and aggression for remote and isolated workers:

  • Undertake a risk assessment that outlines the key areas of risk:
    • Nature of the work
    • Location of the work
    • First aid and emergencies
    • Length of time the isolated or remote worker may be working alone
    • Communication
    • Training for the lone worker
    • Knowledge sharing
    • Anything else that applies to your situation that is likely to increase WHS risk for the lone workers who are remote or isolated workers
  • Create a policy or anti-violence or what most people refer to as occupational violence and aggression in the workplace, and that explains how to identify, report and resolve incidents of occupational violence and aggression.
  • Ensure an effective line of communication for all lone workers, including regular check-ins and notification of physical location and tasks being performed, particularly those that are new, unfamiliar, or pose WHS risk.
  • Training and awareness are key factors in workplace violence prevention. Courses delivered by credible workplace compliance training providers such as Sentrient can help, such as the Sentrient online course for occupational violence and aggression.
  • Encourage your employees to call out poor behaviour that is directed towards them from others, including other employees, clients, visitors or any other member of the public who can be reasonably connected with the workplace.

Remote or isolated work: Big WHS risk #2: Poor access to emergency assistance

There are specific laws that apply when you do remote or isolated work. As a PCBU, you must:

  • manage the risks associated with remote or isolated work, and
  • provide a system of work that ensures effective communication with the worker.

These can be achieved in ways such as:

  • monitoring your workers regularly, by phone calls or periodic visits
  • having a check-in process whereby workers are required to contact the home base at a nominated time
  • having an emergency response plan when workers fail to report in at an agreed time/s.

When implementing controls, consideration should be given to the following:

  • buddy systems
  • workplace layout and design
  • movement records
  • training, information and instruction
  • first aid in the workplace
  • communication systems.

Communication systems need to be provided so that they will allow a worker to call for help at any time in the event of an emergency. These could include:

  • mobile phones
  • satellite communication systems
  • personal security systems or personal duress systems
  • radio communication systems
  • distress beacons, such as a personal locator beacon (PLB)

Having policies and training in place for lone workers that clearly explains how to identify, report and resolve WHS issues, as well as hazard and risk reporting, underpin your approach to risk management, and you may like to roll out compliance training such as that provided by Sentrient who is one of the most credible workplace training companies in Australia and New Zealand and the region. Courses such as working alone, occupational violence and aggression, and work health and safety are a few examples of such online WHS training.

Remote or isolated work: WHS risk #3: Psychological injuries or mental health

Whilst much commentary is provided around big risks number one and two, a growing area of risk to all workers, particularly those who are remote or isolated workers, is psychological injuries or mental health.

Credible organisations such as Beyond Blue in Australia dedicate much resource and effort towards helping employers and the people they are responsible for to address mental health issues at work, and other initiatives such as the Are You OK day are all good examples of initiatives that are bringing the once do not discuss issues to the forefront.

Sentrient released a series of publicly available online COVID-19 courses in the middle of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, one which was on health and well-being for those who were working from home, and it saw more than 100,000 people access the training in more than 37 countries, within weeks. The key themes around mental health were to set remote or isolated workers up in a way that makes them feel connected and that if something comes up, they have an avenue to identify, report and resolve issues. Just having someone you know you can reach out to and that you feel safe at work, regardless of whether you are at your regular place of work and surrounded by others or if you are a remote or isolated worker.

Proactive prevention measures employers can take to combat WHS risks for remote and isolated workers.

  • Do a risk assessment of your remote or isolated workers
  • Employers should put together a team of managers who are the most highly trained in how to deal with WHS risks, such as occupational violence and aggression in the workplace, emergency assistance for remote and isolated workers, and mental health for those who are working alone
  • It’s essential for employers to be in tune with what their employees are thinking, feeling and doing and that everyone has an avenue for identifying, reporting and resolving WHS risks and issues that arise in their day-to-day work.

Need some help with WHS training to support your remote and isolated workers?

To find out more about the Sentrient working alone course, you can visit the website page for our working alone course or the Sentrient main website.