Working alone: regulations may not be enough

Collective agreement language may pick up the slack

From lab assistants to miners, and from public health nurses to store clerks, many employees do their jobs alone, with all the safety risks that can involve. However, regulations governing this practice are not consistent in labour codes across Canada. Collective agreement language varies greatly as well.

Several provinces, including Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, have regulations concerning this practice. Albert’s regulations define what is meant by working alone and state that simply providing an employee in such a situation with a two-way radio or cell phone does not suffice. Under that province’s regulations, which came into effect on October 4, 2000, the employer is required to conduct a workplace hazard assessment, implement safety measures to reduce the risk and ensure effective communication between the employee and his/her supervisor in case of emergency. In Manitoba, regulations were updated last April to prohibit those 18 years of age and under from working alone at night.

In Ontario, Quebec and Prince Edward Island and in the federal government, working alone per se is not regulated. In Ontario, for example, the regulation falls under the general category of the employer’s general duty to “take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker” as specified in section 25 (2)(h) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

As far as collective agreements are concerned, a brief review establishes a wide spectrum of practices. The agreement between Air Canada Regional and CAW, Local 2002, bans working alone altogether. In contrast, the current Saskatoon Catholic School Board agreement provides only parking and electrical plug-ins for staff working alone in a school overnight. In the collective agreement between York University and its staff association, a letter of intent indicates the parties have agreed to develop and establish a working alone policy “for the protection of employees who may work alone.”

Recently, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) produced a discussion paper which suggested how improvements could be made to working-alone protocols. In the absence of specific government regulations, author Taylore Darnel, of the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union (COPE), recommends incorporating working-alone language into collective agreements. She notes that one of the first stops on the road to making working alone safer is language establishing a joint occupational health and safety committee. Its job is to provide policy as well as education “to members and bargaining teams.”

Next, Darnel lists the items which sound working alone language should contain. They include hazards assessments, procedures to minimize risk and assist workers, training for workers and supervisors and on-going reviews.

Once each job which falls within the definition of working alone has been identified, a hazard assessment is undertaken. It involves a review of past incidents, discussion with workers “on the floor” and the identification of each hazard and how it can be eliminated or at least controlled by better procedures. The latter includes preventive procedures, like the use of cell phones and check-ins at specified times, and active measures once an emergency has been identified.

Documentation of incidents and the response to them is crucial to determine the effectiveness of the program. In addition to a written plan, on-going regular training and education are essential. This includes familiarization with first aid resources and a list of First Aid certified personnel.

The paper also recommends a review of procedures at least annually or when the work arrangements change.

All these steps provide a pattern of “due diligence” to make jobs for those working alone less hazardous.

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