Ensuring the daily safety of mobile workers

No employer likes to think about workers being hurt or killed on the job.

December, 2012 Issue of Cabling Installation & Maintenance Magazine

Some straightforward action from employers can help alleviate many of the concerns around mobile-worker safety.

By Anne Bonaparte, Xora Inc.

No employer likes to think about workers being hurt or killed on the job. But according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the reality is that every day in America, more than 8,000 people are injured badly enough to miss work and 13 people die from injuries incurred while working. The most common work-related injuries and deaths are roadway accidents, falls and homicides. And one of the most dangerous industries to work in is construction—including specialty contracting such as cable installation. (Source: U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, Injuries, Illnesses and Fatalities Program, 2010 and 2011; www.bls.gov/iif/)

One of the reasons that construction workers and specialty contractors have such high injury rates is that many of them are “always mobile”—on the move continually throughout their workday, traveling from one job site to another typically in company-owned vehicles. And their services can be required 24 hours a day, seven days a week. These circumstances make always-mobile workers vulnerable in dozens of ways that employees who work in employer-controlled offices or other facilities are not.

To complicate their situations, some always-mobile workers can be on the job miles away from cities or towns, with limited access to first-aid or law-enforcement assistance should something go wrong.

As an employer or supervisor of always-mobile workers, you know you can’t always protect them from harm. But you can develop safety programs and contingency plans for the most common hazards, and prepare your employees for what to do if they find themselves at risk.

Based on our experience with more than 16,000 organizations whose businesses depend on always-mobile workers, I offer four tips for helping keep them safe.

1. Identify risks

For specialty contractors such as cabling installers and maintenance technicians, safety risks tend to fall into the following categories.

  • Electrical hazards, including contact with live power lines
  • Electromagnetic field or optical-fiber hazards, including exposure to laser light
  • Elevated and overhead work, typically on lifts or elevated platforms that create the possibility of falls from above or of being struck by falling objects while below
  • Confined-space-entry risks that result from being co-located with other dangerous infrastructure elements, especially in urban areas
  • Motor-vehicle accidents as workers travel from job site to job site
  • General construction risks, including exposure to existing aboveground or underground utilities—buried natural-gas pipelines, for example

In addition, answering an emergency service call in the middle of the night in high-crime areas puts your employees at risk of assault, robbery or homicide.

You probably are a pretty good judge of the kinds of safety issues workers face. But your workers might be even better. So augment your own assessment by asking them what risks and hazards they face while working in the field—especially those who have been on the job for a while or have been involved in a near-miss or an injury already. Take advantage of their firsthand knowledge and experience, and discover the following.

  • What are the most likely risks for each type of mobile worker your company employs?
  • Which of these has actually happened in the past and how did the company and the employee handle it?
  • Which risks are workers most concerned will happen in the future?
  • What suggestions do they have for company policies and procedures that might help keep them safe?

Involving your mobile workers in assessing their own risks has an additional benefit: It encourages them to think more about, and be more responsible for, their own safety.

This is important because not all problems can be identified in advance, and raising workers’ awareness of potential hazards can make them more alert to new dangers that might arise.

2. Set policies and procedures

Begin this step of the process with an inventory of the policies and procedures already in place. Then identify areas where further work is needed to ensure worker safety.

For example, when working in remote or isolated areas is required, your employees should be in over-reporting mode—checking in before starting a job, providing an estimate of how long their job might take, and then checking in again when the job is complete. If the expected time passes with no word on the worker, have a plan in place for what happens next.

By establishing and enforcing safety-oriented policies that make sense for your workforce, you can not only mitigate risk for individuals, but also make it possible for all employees to learn from the experiences of others.

3. Train, educate and communicate

Research shows that education and training alone does not ensure worker safety, but it does lead to safer practices among workers.

Training on safety issues obviously should begin before a worker starts a new job. This kind of orientation is especially important for anyone who has never worked in the field, is returning after a period of time in which the potential dangers may have changed, or will work in a new function or geography in which unfamiliar hazards may be encountered. Consider training based on “what-if” scenarios—identifying many possible situations workers could encounter in the field, how they might play out and what workers could do to protect themselves.

These initial orientations and trainings should be followed in the days and months that follow with refresher courses at periodic intervals. Safety incidents and how workers and the company handled them should be publicized so others can learn. Everyone needs reminders of how to keep sharp and alert to potential dangers.

4. Use technology

Worker safety is one area in which mobile technology can make a huge difference; mobile-workforce management solutions can both ease the burden of running an effective safety program and help give everyone peace of mind.

For example, mobile apps now are available for your workers’ mobile phones, smartphones and tablets that can be accessed through any device with a browser and an Internet connection, and can provide multiple benefits for you as well as your mobile workers. Some of the benefits include the following.

  • GPS capabilities of mobile phones allow you to know where your workers are at all times, with their locations shown on maps for easy viewing.
  • A job start-and-stop feature can automate the process of workers informing the office personnel when they arrive at and depart a location.
  • Alerts can be preconfigured to send via email or text, informing you that a worker has not been heard from for a period of time, in case workers are unable to call for assistance themselves.
  • Geo-fencing capabilities allow you to set boundaries around areas and have alerts automatically sent if a phone or vehicle crosses over a boundary line.

The list of potential dangers to always-mobile employees is unfortunately long. Depending on the work being performed at the locations, workers are at risk of sudden illness, vehicle accidents, theft, natural disasters and more. The good news is that the actions employers can take to protect employees are straightforward. And capable mobile-workforce management software can help alleviate many of the concerns around worker safety, allowing you and your mobile employees to focus on what you do best—your job. ::

Anne Bonaparte is president and chief executive officer of mobile-workforce management solution provider Xora Inc. (www.xora.com).

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