Technology to support health protection of isolated workers

Trento, 3 October 2013. A 27-year-old plumber is found dead in a cold room of a warehouse of the fruit growers' consortium in Cles. The public prosecutor's office places the plant manager, the plumber's employer and the prevention and protection service manager (RSPP) on the register of suspects. The Public Prosecutor's Office alleges the crime of manslaughter. The consortium faces a fine of between EUR 256,000 and EUR 1,000,000, as well as a ban on activity for a period of six months to two years.

Almost four years later, the man's family was compensated with €750,000, the Consortium was ordered to pay a fine of €50,000 for its failure to set up an organisational management model for the prevention of risks at work, while it remains The trial of the other defendants is still open.

The worker was working in a cold room in an isolated condition, with no co-worker close by. In the case of the cold room, the isolated working condition is compounded by the hazards of the environment, normally with temperatures close to -20 °C and low oxygen content; in such conditions an accident with loss of consciousness, and a delay in rescue, can easily have fatal consequences.

The above news story encourages me to take stock of the problem of lone workers and the state of the art technology available to protect their health.

Who are the isolated workers?

Isolated workers' are defined as people who are required to work alone, without direct supervision and without the presence of other parties in the vicinity that can render immediate aid in the event of an injury or accident. A worker who carries out his or her activity alone, works without direct visual or vocal contact with the company's other employees and this condition could affect all categories of workers (even office workers) who, for example, need to continue working beyond normal hours, or in cases where their presence is required on holidays, evenings or nights.

Isolated workers are also those who do not really work alone, but are in a context presenting difficulties in communication, movement or physical impedimentas well as people working in remote places, of difficult accessunknown or adverse environmental conditions.

Examples of isolated categories of workers are: petrol station attendants, maintenance workers, cleaners, laboratory technicians, farmers, drivers, taxi drivers, transporters, shop assistants, pharmacists, foresters, gardeners, medical guards, nurses, security guards, warehouse workers, doctors, nurses, construction workers, doormen.

Regulation of the isolated worker

With regard to isolated workers, both day and night, it is necessary to recall that Article 17, paragraph 1, letter a) of Legislative Decree 81/08, as amended by Legislative Decree 106/09, places an obligation on the Employer to assess all risks to the health and safety of workers, including therefore also those arising from particular working conditions, such as those of isolated workers. Following this assessment, the Employer must adopt the necessary prevention and protection measures and related procedures to eliminate or reduce the consequences of the identified risks.

The risk factors of the lone worker

In the case of lone workers, the main risk factor (to be assessed and for which prevention and protection measures and procedures are to be adopted) relates to the organisation of rescue in the event of the worker falling ill or being injured.

In this circumstance, the additional risk factors are as follows:

  • inability or limited ability on the part of the worker to summon help outside the workplace;
  • difficulty or inability of rescuers, if and when alerted, to gain access to the place where intervention is needed;
  • further difficulty in identifying exactly where to intervene in complex situations once inside.

These additional risk factors inevitably lead to the delayed intervention with sometimes fatal effects.

Therefore, the Employer must (by virtue of the obligations under the aforementioned Article 17(1)(a) of Legislative Decree 81/08) provide for systems to monitor the worker's state of health in real time by checking his state of consciousness.

In addition, it should be recalled that Article 2(5) of Ministerial Decree No. 388 of 15/7/2003 states as follows:

"In companies or production units that have workers working in isolated locations, other than the company headquarters or production unit, the employer is obliged to provide them with the medication packet in Annex 2, which is part of this decree, and a suitable means of communication to connect with the company in order to quickly activate the emergency system of the National Health Service."

This communication system must be kept in good working order and maintained. Workers' private mobile telephones cannot be verified by the employer, and therefore do not constitute a suitable means, and almost all of them do not have a man-down function, and are therefore inadequate in the event of illness and/or accident with loss of consciousness.

Which devices to choose for isolated workers?

One of the first steps to protect isolated workers is to equip them with a 'man-down' device that can alert rescue personnel in the event of illness or an emergency situation.

Current technology offers devices operating on GSM, DECT, Wi-Fi or radio network. These instruments are equipped with an emergency button as well as sensors capable of detecting the non-movement and horizontal position of the operator (mandown function) and autonomously alerting rescue personnel.

The most advanced devices also possess the functions of localisation (via GPS for outdoor environments, via radio beacon/RFID for indoor environments), Amber Alert (programmable timer in the absence of GSM coverage), advanced multi constellation GNSS position tracking (48-channel receiver, GPS, Glonass, Galileo and BeiDou), Evolved Mandown++ (man-down, non-movement and violent fall alarm), geofencing (virtual perimeter), ALS (Automatic Location System), hands-free system, certification for Atex environments.

Modern devices allow the maximum customisation of all configuration parameters, such as the possibility of setting the tilt angle and mandown activation times, to adapt to different types of operator activities.

Particular attention must be paid to the choice of instrument. There are in fact devices on the market (mostly of non-European manufacture) that are unsupervised (i.e. not able to continuously check the status of its components by signalling any malfunctioning, network absence, GPS absence, sensor anomaly, etc.), equipped with non-proprietary software/sensors and therefore unreliable because subject to service interruptions, or lacking the certifications required by Quality and Safety Management Systems.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the adoption of devices to protect isolated workers allows the company to obtain a reduction in the INAIL premium (OT24).