How to handle employees working alone

By and |  August 14, 2017

In our experience, miners are generally problem solvers.

They are drawn to the mining environment because it presents an endless set of challenges posed by changing conditions, unique operational issues and sometimes daunting maintenance tasks. They enjoy these challenges.

What often seems like a completely impossible problem to outside observers usually is resolved with a combination of creativity, expertise and hard work. This can-do spirit is an essential component of the mining industry. Without it, few important things would ever get accomplished.

There is another side to this positive work ethic, however. Sometimes, people take too much upon themselves to get a job done. In their zeal to accomplish a goal or overcome a challenge, they discount the level of hazard or complexity of the job. This can sometimes put people in precarious positions, exposed to hazardous conditions or practices. This is especially true when people are working alone and do not have any backup.

Recent accidents have spurred the Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA) to launch an initiative aimed at emphasizing the potential hazards involved in working alone. The agency has directed inspectors to address such issues emphasize best practices. Mine operators and associations have committed to assisting the agency in getting this information out.

From our perspective as safety lawyers who have participated in a multitude of accident investigations over the years, many of these best practices are consistent with lessons learned in these investigations, and we want to help this effort.

There is no legal restriction against working alone on mine property. While everyone would prefer miners be accompanied in every task they perform, the reality of mining operations and manpower simply does not enable that kind of coverage on every job. MSHA regulations recognize this reality.

The “working alone” standard at 30 CFR §56/57.18020 simply sets out the following requirement: “No employee shall be assigned, or allowed, or be required to perform work alone in any area where hazardous conditions exist that would endanger his safety unless he can communicate with others, can be heard or can be seen.”

The operative language that people normally remember from this regulation is the communication and visual contact requirement. An important best practice (and mandatory legal requirement) in any working-alone situation is to ensure personnel have the ability through a communications device or by a visual sight line to be in contact with others.

That communication method needs to be effective. A cellphone in an area with limited service, for instance, will probably not meet the requirement. A visual sight line that is periodically obstructed by mine traffic or operations will also fail to fit the bill.

From our experience, the critical language in this standard is the reference to “any area where hazardous conditions exist that could endanger … safety.” The key to limiting hazards to persons working alone is to make sure effective procedures are being followed to identify dangerous conditions and reinforcing with personnel the importance of getting help when there is any level of uncertainty. There are a number of best practices that can enhance this process:

■ Conduct job safety analyses for tasks that are frequently conducted by people working alone.
■ Confirm that personnel assigned to perform a task alone have the necessary training, skills and experience.
■ Evaluate the task to determine whether locational or operational issues make it inappropriate to perform the task alone.
■ Require personnel to notify their supervisors or team members of their location when working alone.
■ Train personnel regarding the unique hazards associated with working alone.

The most effective communication with people working alone will not prevent accidents where personnel ignore warning signs, work on moving equipment in an unsafe manner or attempt to perform tasks for which they have inadequate training or experience.

The safety principles of carefully evaluating your working place, identifying hazards, promptly correcting or barricading those hazards, and getting help when problems develop are raised every time a working-alone accident occurs. Those principles, combined with a healthy understanding of one’s limitations, can greatly reduce the potential for harm when working alone.

Bill Doran and Margo Lopez are with the national labor, employment and safety law firm Ogletree Deakins. Contact Bill at and contact Margo at

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