Safety tips for one-person crews.

During one of my safety seminars a few years back, I was confronted with a question about the ethics and even sanity (his words, not mine) of putting someone out in the field alone. Over the past several years the topic has come up during a number of my safety seminars. Many surveyors don't believe one-person crews are safe, and they have numerous concerns. But, the reality is that advanced technology has more and more surveyors and surveying firms considering the option of lone surveyor "crews." What safety factors need to be considered for lone surveying? Let's take a look.

Two Heads Can Be Better Than One

Just because something can be done doesn't mean it necessarily should be done. And just because surveyors are now offered equipment that can be operated by a sole person doesn't mean they must do so.

However, if you or your company's supervisors purchase equipment that allows for solo surveying, such as robotic total stations or RTK GPS units, consider using the same equipment with a two-person crew anyway, for safety reasons.

"Safety is an issue for some solo surveyors," says Paul Cook, PLS, president of L.P. Cook and Company Inc., a one-man surveying company in Santa Barbara, Calif. "I find there is a time and place for solo surveying, but sometimes it would be best to have a helper along for the sake of safety. Some jobs are just done better from a time standpoint with two people, like construction staking or running a traverse."

Could one person be performing staking functions while the other finds the next point? Are there other functions that would keep two crew members occupied while still utilizing the full potential of automated equipment? My basis for these remarks goes back to my deep-seated sense of safety for all surveying crew members. It is my personal opinion that whenever working alone is avoided a higher level of safety automatically follows.<

Safety Across the Water

The United States is not the best example for safety standards, especially in comparison to England, and even all of the United Kingdom, where safety policies exist down to the borough level for employees working alone. The Health & Safety Executive (HSE), one of two commissions responsible for the regulation of almost all the risks to health and safety arising from work activity in Britain, administers England's Health & Safety at Work Act of 1974. Although no laws have been officially promulgated regarding lone worker safety, the organization evidently considers lone worker safety to be so important that a publication has been developed to aid employers. And although the Safety Act doesn't specifically address lone worker safety, the HSE does state: "It is the employer's duty to assess risks to lone workers and take steps to avoid or control risk where necessary." An interesting addition to this statement is that: "Employees have responsibilities to take reasonable care of themselves and other people affected by their work and to cooperate with their employers in meeting their legal obligations." So, the responsibility to comply with safety standards lies with both the employer and the employee. The HSE also defines lone workers as "those who work by themselves without close or direct supervision." The HSE publication further includes a list of questions to guide employers on determining hazards. (See sidebar for sample.)

Here in the United States the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) doesn't have any standards or rules in place for solo workers, which can have bad consequences. The lack of regulations doesn't set any strict precedent for safety.

Something surveyors should take note of, however, is OSHA's General Duties Clause, section 5a1 of the Williams Steiger Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which states: "Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees." There is no question that OSHA could use this to issue citations if its inspectors thought hazards existed when employees work alone.

Dangers of One-ness

Just what kind of hazards might be possible for lone surveying employees?

"I do believe that there are some serious safety issues involved with working solo, particularly when working in traffic or in very remote areas," says Bob Manley, PLS, a sole proprietor in Oklahoma City, Okla. "Like any reasonably safety-conscious surveyor, I try to avoid working in the street whenever possible, but at times one must get out in the street to collect data or set a corner. When doing this, I try as best I can to time these excursions in the street to be during off-peak traffic times and to be rather creative in my efforts to protect myself from traffic. For instance, when shooting or setting a monument in a busy street, I will often use my vehicle to block the lane instead of relying on flimsy orange traffic cones alone to divert traffic. Whenever possible, I will "˜shut down' lanes to keep traffic at a distance when running center lines, but this is not always possible. I do what I can, but there is a certain element of risk that is inherent in working in the street."

On the other end of the spectrum, dangers also exist when surveyors are isolated when working. "Working in remote areas presents a problem," Manley says. "If I were to be injured in a remote area with nobody around to aid me or to direct emergency personnel to my location, serious consequences might result."

Manley is right. In my first safety seminar, a crew member recounted the day his partner received a major cut to one of his arms that later required more than 20 stitches. The injured worker lost blood quickly on the site and the field vehicle was quite a distance away. Had the injured worker's partner not been there to render first aid for him, the results could have been tragic. I have heard many other stories about twisted and broken ankles, and how cold weather conditions have caused immobility, sometimes leading to severe health problems. Any minor injury can quickly develop into a serious situation if one is alone.

And it should go without saying that any confined space entry should be off-limits to one-person crews.

Tracking Options for Lone Workers

The best tracking options for workers "going it alone" are for supervisors, office staff, or even friends and family members to keep in regular contact with them.

"I always carry my cell phone in the field [and] I try to keep my wife informed of where I will be working each day and when to expect me home," Manley says. "I [also] try to remain conscious of my vulnerability while in remote areas by myself. I try to avoid what might be "˜risky' behavior that I would normally not think twice about, such as walking around obstacles or moving downstream to an easier crossing point rather than going up or down steep banks."

Another measure of safety is for supervisors, colleagues or family members to keep a log that includes the solo worker's name, established or estimated working location(s), mobile phone number, time of departure and estimated time of return. For one-person businesses, cell phones and two-way radios are good options for keeping in contact with others (like spouses). Satellite phones, such as those available from Globalstar (San Jose, Calif.) and Iridium (Arlington, Va.) are good options for people who work in areas where cellular coverage is poor or non-existent. Many satellite phone models include other data capabilities, such as access to the Internet or connection to a computer or PDA to send and receive E-mail, and to access company data networks and intranets. However, despite all of these advantages, these devices don't have tracking capability.

Several types of radio equipment with built-in monitors are available for lone workers. Some of these units are reportedly made by Motorola, but they appear to be available from suppliers only in England. One of the radios requires a lone worker to activate a button within a certain time frame. Supervisors can use this feature to keep tabs on their employees and ensure their safety. If the button is not activated in time, an alarm condition is sent to a central location. The other radio type will automatically activate if a worker is inactive for a predetermined time period. Other devices used in Canada will send an alert if the device moves beyond a predefined geographic perimeter. The information collected from these remote devices are processed and sent over a secure and encrypted Internet connection to either a third-party monitoring partner of the manufacturer or to the customer's designated center. These devices can be installed on a backpack, vehicle or structure. Another Canadian company offers a device that is a simple Windows-based configuration tool with a self-contained power supply. After being configured, it can transmit data triggered at a regularly scheduled interval or when a panic button is pressed.

Perhaps another option that should be considered for solo surveying workers is the consumer-targeted GPS locator. Parents are becoming more interested in these devices to track their children; the elderly is another group targeted for this device.

Wherify Wireless Inc. (Redwood Shores, Calif.), offers a bracelet-type device that includes GPS and digital wireless technologies to pinpoint a wearer's position within a few feet, according to the company. The cost is about $400 with the typical monthly service charge most cellular users pay. Just as parents can view satellite or street maps on Wherify's website or call its 800 number anytime of day or night to obtain their kids' locations, so too could supervisors or family members of surveyors. Since the device uses both cellular technology and GPS, it is said to work in most locations, whether a surveyor is working outside, in buildings or in underground locations. This device also has a panic button for emergencies.

Another maker, Applied Digital Solutions (Palm Beach, Fla.), sells a combination watch and clip-on GPS tracking device at about the same cost as the Wherify device. In addition to an outside party being able to track the wearer's location using the Internet, the watch portion can also be programmed to alert anyone when the wearer has wandered outside of designated boundaries.

Several other manufacturers offer similar devices. Of course, it should be realized that radio links, cellular service and even satellite signals can't reach many areas where surveyors work. If this is known, then it is wise for a surveyor to reconsider heading out alone.

Be Smart and Stay Safe

From a safety standpoint, I strongly recommend avoiding one-person crews when possible. But, if a surveying firm is determined to use one-person crews, or you are the crew, then a check-in system or other means of monitoring should definitely be established. Records should be kept with details on exactly where the person is located and how long he or she is expected to be there. A limited first-aid kit should be available for the lone surveyor, and he or she should have adequate first-aid training. The main thing to remember is to never go into a situation that appears unsafe. C'mon, even The Lone Ranger had Tonto.

Lone Worker Risk Hazard Determination Questions

  • Can the risks of the job be adequately controlled by one person?
  • Is the person medically fit and suitable to work alone?
  • What training is required to ensure competency in safety matters?
  • What happens if the person becomes ill, has an accident, or there is an emergency?
  • How will the person be supervised?


Dangers that lone workers could face:

  • Accidents or emergencies
  • Confined spaces
  • Driving/traveling alone
  • Fire
  • High-risk locations
  • Lack of first-aid provision
  • Lack of peer support
  • Lack of rest
  • Night work
  • Manual handling
  • Poor or lack of communication
  • Potential violence
  • Problems with access/egress