Keeping essential workers safe during a shutdown

Date Posted: 04/06/2020

Essential Workers SafetyMany businesses have shut down partially or entirely during the COVID-19 pandemic, but many employers need to keep some essential personnel on site. These workers may face unique challenges during a shutdown.

Workers deemed essential who continue reporting to the facility may be working alone, or nearly alone. If your facility normally relies on other employees to provide internal emergency response, those responders may not be available. If any injuries occur, there may not be anyone nearby to provide assistance or call for help.

Despite a common misconception, OSHA doesn’t limit general industry employees from working alone (except in electrical power generation). However, the employer should evaluate the work to determine if tasks can be done safely by a lone employee. During a total or partial shutdown, additional evaluation may be needed because employees who previously worked on teams might be more isolated, lacking support.

Understanding expectations

Essential employees should clearly understand what duties they are expected to perform. They may not have as much work, and might look for ways to “keep busy” while on site. Therefore, it may also be necessary to identify particular tasks they should not attempt while working alone.

Obviously, certain jobs (like confined space entry) require multiple workers with proper training. However, other jobs might involve handling chemicals, working with dangerous equipment, or working at heights. An employee who loses consciousness from chemical exposure or who falls from a height already faces a serious situation. The danger increases if there’s no one around to help.

If dangerous work must be done, the tasks should be carefully scheduled, with another person available as an observer. An alternative is to have the worker contact someone (like a supervisor or safety manager) before starting a project, provide an estimate of how long the task will require, then check in when the job is completed. If the worker does not check in when expected, the contact person should be nearby to follow up.

Finally, essential workers should use extra caution, even more than usual (and following the “usual” procedures should provide ample safety already). Boredom and routine tasks may contribute to a lack of focus, increasing the risk of injury. Also, some employees working without supervision might be tempted to take shortcuts, compounding the risk of injury. Your essential personnel probably don’t have many backups, so making sure they stay safe is critical for the company’s sake as well as their own.


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