Protecting the people who work at your plant, facility or office is challenging enough. But how do you look after the health and safety of mobile workers such as real estate agents, social workers, home care nurses, drivers, messengers and sales people who work off-site and, in most cases, by themselves? Do the OHS laws apply to workers in the “field”? And, if so, what do they require you to do?
These are tricky questions. This article will help you answer them. It will also show you how to formulate a practical strategy for protecting mobile workers (which, for simplicity’s sake, we’ll refer to as “field workers”) when they travel off-site. First, we’ll explain what the law requires. Following is a Model Procedure for field workers to follow that you can adapt.
Field Workers Are Vulnerable
Being on the road and in isolation makes the field worker especially vulnerable—particularly to attack and acts of violence. Since they’re cut off from “base,” field workers are also harder to help after incidents occur. Examples:
- A 50-year-old Ontario salesman is found dead in his New York City hotel room. He apparently died of a heart attack four days earlier. His widow is suing the company for not maintaining regular contact with him;
- Two female executives are raped in their hotel rooms during a business trip to Johannesburg, South Africa;
- A home care nurse is brutally attacked by a patient during a visit to his home;
- A lab courier smashes his van into a tree, is knocked unconscious and bleeds to death before anybody finds him
Are Field Workers Covered by OHS Laws?
The Canadian OHS laws require employers to ensure their workers a safe and healthy place to work. They mostly cover hazards in the workplace such as machines, hazardous substances and confined spaces. Do these legal requirements extend to hazards outside the workplace? Answer. Yes. As a technical matter, there are two reasons for this:
Definition of Worker: OHS laws protect “workers” or “employees.” This clearly includes salespersons, home care nurses and other field workers in the company’s employment. In fact, in some provinces, such as Ontario, Alberta and Quebec, the employer has a duty to protect persons performing services on its behalf even if it doesn’t have an actual employment relationship with the person.
Definition of Workplace: The OHS laws use the term “workplace” and “worksite.” At first glance, this seems to exclude field workers who work off-site. But the definition of “workplace” is generally broad enough to cover the space occupied by the field worker. The BC definition is typical: Workplace is “any place where a worker is or is likely to be engaged in any work and includes any vessel, vehicle or mobile equipment used by a worker in work” [BC Workers’ Compensation Act, Section 106].
What Do the Laws Require?
Protecting field workers is required in every province. To figure out what protections you need to provide, we need to distinguish between two sets of provinces: The eight that have specific regulations on workers who work alone, and the six that don’t. Let’s start with the former:
The Working-Alone Provinces
Alberta, BC, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Saskatchewan and Quebec expressly require employers to take measures to protect workers who work alone or in isolation. Although there are slight differences in definition, working alone or in isolation essentially means a person who can’t be readily helped in an emergency or in the event of an illness or injury. These regulations cover field workers at least while they’re traveling in vehicles and visiting homes or remote locations.
The regulations aren’t exactly the same in terms of the measures employers must take. But they are similar. When you boil it down, they require the employer to create a safety plan for workers who work alone or in isolation that includes five kinds of protections:
1. Risk Assessment: The thinking behind the regulations is that working alone is a danger like any other danger found in the workplace and needs to be treated accordingly. So the first step is to conduct a risk assessment based on the job involved. For example, a risk assessment for a home care nurse needs to identify the risks of going into patients’ homes alone, collection agencies need to consider the risk that temper tantrums pose to their agents, etc. Risk assessments also need to be redone periodically.
Example: Three oil workers are camped out in a remote part of an Alberta oil field when an alarm sounds from a nearby compressor building. One of the workers gets up and goes to the building to check out the problem. He loosens a pipe and allows toxic hydrogen sulfide vapors to escape. Several hours later, he’s found dead of asphyxiation on the floor. The victim hadn’t brought his gas detection equipment with him as he had been trained to do. The oil company pleads guilty to not updating its working alone hazard assessment in violation of the Alberta OHS regulations and pays $105,000 in fines [R. v. Burlington Resources Canada Ltd., No. 030532956P101001-007 (Prov. Ct.), Dec. 12, 2003].
2. Training: Some provinces—BC, NB and SK—say in their regulations that people working alone, including field workers, must be trained to handle the dangers they may face. The others don’t spell this out in their working alone regulations. But employers in these provinces still have to train field workers to handle the hazards and risks they encounter on the job just as they would any other worker. Such training would include dealing with the risk of assault, robbery and verbal abuse. Field workers also need to be trained how to react if they suffer an injury or illness in a remote or isolated location.
3. Monitoring: The heart of the various working alone regulations is the requirement that employers develop a system for regularly checking on workers when they’re in the field. How and how often depends on the degree of danger involved. So for instance, social workers dealing with emotionally disturbed and potentially violent clients need to be checked at closer intervals than salespeople driving to an office building to meet with business clients. Most of the provinces leave it to the employer (in some cases, in consultation with the Joint Health and Safety Committee or Representative) to work out the details of the system. BC specifically requires the employer to designate a person to maintain contact with the worker during the shift and immediately after it, and to keep a log of the contacts.
4. Communication from Worker to Base: Another key element in the regulations is the requirement that employers provide field workers a way to call or signal for help. Some provinces specify the kind of equipment employers should use. For example, Alberta and Saskatchewan require the use of radio, telephone or other forms of electronic communication. BC does the same but goes even further. According to the regulation: “The preferred method for checking is visual or two-way voice contact, but where such a system is not practicable, a one-way system which allows the worker to call or signal for help and which will send a call for help if the worker does not reset the device after a predetermined interval is acceptable” [BC, OHS Regulation, Sec. 4.21(6)].
The other working-alone provinces—MB, NB, NT and QC—don’t say anything specific about the kind of system or technology employers should use to enable field workers to call for emergency help.
5. Safe Work Practices: Some of the provinces—AB, MB, NB and SK—require employers to develop safe work practices for field workers to follow when they’re off-site. That could involve, for example, banning employees from going to a client’s home alone after dark, using a “buddy system,” carrying appropriate supplies and equipment and planning an escape route. The other working-alone provinces presumably require the same measures as part of the overall safety plan for field workers.
The Non-Working Alone Provinces
All of the provinces require employers to protect their field workers when they’re off-site—even the ones that don’t have specific working alone rules in their OHS regulations. Where does the law say that?
The OHS law of every province includes a broadly worded clause that requires employers to take all reasonable precautions to protect workers against foreseeable risks that can cause death or great bodily harm. Some of the non-working alone provinces, including Ontario, have made it known that they interpret this so-called General Duty Clause to require the protection of workers working alone or in isolation. (If you’re from Ontario and want official confirmation of this, see the Ministry of Labour’s website at: http://www.gov.on.ca/LAB/english/hs/faqs_1.htm.)
Insider Says: Most of the provinces do impose strict rules on workers working alone in a confined space. But these restrictions don’t apply to field workers working off-site not in a confined space.
Saying that field workers are covered by OHS laws in the non-working alone provinces is the easy part. Figuring out what the actual rules are is much trickier. How are you supposed to know what you’re expected to do to protect your field workers if the law doesn’t tell you?
In fact, the law does tell you what you’re supposed to do—at least in part. You just need to know what parts of the law to look at:
General Training Requirements: As noted above, it’s a staple of every OHS law that you must train your workers to recognize and protect themselves against the hazards and risks they confront on the job. Field workers are no different from other workers in this regard.
First Aid Requirements: All employers are also required to make arrangements for providing emergency medical care to their workers. The first aid regulations are mostly designed for responding to emergencies in the immediate workplace; but some requirements might apply in the off-site setting as well. Two examples:
- OHS regulations under the federal Labour Code require employers to have first aid kits not just at the central workplace but in vehicles used by workers on company business;
- Many of the provinces that require employers to post notices describing the first aid procedures say that if posting isn’t a practical way to communicate the information, an alternative must be used—like putting the procedures in the first aid kit contained in a vehicle.
Safe Work Practices: Many provinces require employers to develop and implement safe work practices to perform dangerous jobs. This requirement might apply to the off-site duties performed by field workers.
Best Practices: Last but not least, the non-working alone provinces could argue that the kinds of measures required in places like Alberta and BC, such as the use of electronic communication between the field worker and a designated contact, are best practices and represent a standard that employers in their own province should meet. “Some of the provinces, especially Alberta and BC, have published helpful guidelines on working alone,” notes Ontario OHS consultant Yvonne O’Reilly. “It would be useful for employers to consult these guidelines, regardless of which province they’re from,” O’Reilly adds.
Field workers are vulnerable and entitled to protection under OHS laws. Your province might spell this out in its regulations; or the obligation might be implied. In either case, protecting the field worker involves deliberate planning involving risk assessment, training, monitoring, communication and safe work practices.
An effective way to tie all these elements together is to establish a set of procedures field workers must follow when they work alone. There’s a model procedure based on one created by the BC Public Service Agency that you can adapt on page 4.
Yvonne O’Reilly, CRSP: O’Reilly Health & Safety Consulting, Apt. 855, 24 Southport St., Toronto, ON M6S 4Z1. Yvonne.firstname.lastname@example.org.