Social Distancing and Working Alone in the Municipal Sector

gmcneil Occupational Health & Safety

As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, all public sector workers are experiencing profound changes in their work. Social distancing is requiring work to be rearranged in ways that minimize contact with other people. In the municipal sector, this is leading to more and more situations where municipal employees are working alone. 

Working alone is often misunderstood. There may be situations where multiple people are working in the same building, but if their work duties don’t bring them into regular contact with one another, they are working alone. A worker is working alone if help would not be readily available when needed. It is not enough that workers have access to cell phones. A worker must be conscious to use the phone, and any number of injuries or medical emergencies could prevent them from calling for help.

Newfoundland and Labrador is one of the few provinces that has explicit health and safety regulations that require an employer to recognize and address this hazard. They state:

  1. (1) In this section, “to work alone or in isolation” means to work in circumstances where assistance would not be readily available to the worker

             (a)  in case of an emergency; or

             (b)  in case the worker is injured or in ill health.

The regulation goes on to require that employers conduct risk assessments and develop plans when people will be working alone. A plan might require workers to physically check in with each other, or a supervisor, at regular intervals, or include GPS tracking or cell phone applications.

The important aspect is the outcome – that every worker is safe and if an injury or medical emergency occurs, that they get the help they need.

In this time of uncertainty, it’s easy for some hazards to be ignored, while we focus on preventing the spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately, those other hazards are just as likely to harm workers as they ever were, potentially more so if we allow our social distancing practices to force us into working alone.

We encourage our members in the municipal sector, or in any sector, to identify where social distancing has led to your members working alone, and if so, take the following steps:

  1. Ask the employer to conduct a risk assessment;
  2. Where a risk is found, the employer must take some action to remove or minimize the risk (check-in, or check-on procedures);
  3. The employer will then develop a written procedure to be followed by workers working alone and involve:
    • The person(s) who will be working alone;
    • The Health and Safety Committee (or representative in a small workplace);
  1. Review the procedure once a year or anytime something changes.