Norway: Challenges faced by workers who are working alone
Working alone is a common experience for Norwegian employees, particularly for those in primary industries (such as mining, agriculture or forestry) and transportation and storage. A new report from the Fafo Research Foundation in Oslo highlights the physical risks, as well as the psychosocial ones, associated with this type of work.
After a series of violent episodes involving lone workers, the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) in spring 2016 commissioned the Fafo Research Foundation in Oslo to research the health and safety issues linked to this type of employment.
According to the findings, almost half (45%) of all Norwegian employees do not have colleagues working close by during 50% or more of their working hours, while one in four employees works alone more than 75% of the time. Lone work increases the risk for physical injury, but might also have important psychosocial consequences.
Lone workers are found in almost all industries, but are especially common in primary industries (such as mining, agriculture and forestry) and transportation and storage. More than half of all employees work alone more than 50% of their working hours in:
- professional, scientific and technical activities;
- administrative and support service activities;
- wholesale and retail trade;
- repair of motor vehicles and motorcycles.
Five different LO affiliates were included in the project:
- Norwegian Union of Railway Workers (NJF);
- Norwegian Transport Workers’ Union (NTF);
- Norwegian Union of Employees in Commerce and Offices (HK);
- Norwegian Union of Industry and Energy Workers (IE);
- Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees (Fagforbundet).
About the research
The report on lone working was written by Fafo researcher Mona Bråten and the main research question concerned the health and safety risks when working alone. The report investigated whether there was any research-based knowledge on the issue and how lone work is interpreted among different players.
The Labour Inspectorate (Arbeidstilsynet) defines lone work as ‘work where the employee over time is beyond sight and hearing of his or her colleagues, and where assistance is not immediately available without being called for’. This definition has been criticised for covering only physical risk and not including the risk of psychosocial consequences such as loneliness and lack of interaction with other colleagues.
Lone work is regulated by the Working Environment Act (PDF) of 18 December 2015. According to the act, employers must assess whether there are any special risks associated with working alone in the undertaking. The act also states that ‘measures necessary for preventing and reducing any risk of working alone shall be implemented in order to meet the statutory requirements regarding a fully satisfactory working environment’, and that efforts must be made ‘to arrange the work so as to enable contact and communication with other employees of the undertaking’.
Contact and communication are deemed important, not only to prevent isolation but also to be able to ask for help or assistance in dangerous situations. But as the law offers no further definition of lone work, different ways of defining this type of work also posed an important question for this project.
Three different data sources were used in the research.
- A thorough literature review was carried out in academic databases and among relevant Nordic research institutes as well as on the websites of the Nordic peak trade union confederations and national trade unions.
- Findings from the Survey of living conditions in Norway 2013 from Statistics Norway were used to map the scale of lone work. Findings from the Labour Inspectorate were analysed to map accidents where a lone working employee was injured or killed.
- Interviews were conducted with five top-level trade union officials in the LO affiliates mentioned above in order to obtain different experiences and views on the issue.
Working alone involves several complex issues. Employees working alone run an increased risk of accidents and harm. Industries with a high proportion of such employees are also those where the employees work with either heavy machinery or vehicles. This in itself implies an increased risk for accidents. On average, 46 employees are killed each year in work-related accidents in Norway (figures from 2011 onwards). The Labour Inspectorate reports that, during this time, two out of five fatal accidents occurred during lone working. Accidents that caused lone workers serious injury, but which were not fatal, accounted for one in four of these accidents.
The interviews in the different national trade unions illustrate the range of possible risks and burdens of working alone. Lone workers also have an increased risk of being subject to violence from customers or clients. This issue is particularly important to trade unions with members in retail and social services.
Working alone implies that help is not immediately available, whether the risk is from accidents or violence. But it also implies that there is less possibility of attending to personal needs and that the employee is never off-duty.
Loneliness and a lack of social contact is only one of several possible consequences of lone work. All jobs involve taking decisions and, without any colleagues available for discussions or advice, the risk of making a bad decision not only increases, but the possibility of learning and self-developments might also suffer.
The report’s conclusions highlight three different aspects.
- There is no common definition of lone work, making it hard to monitor or examine it in different industries.
- A second dimension is the proportion of lone work. Some people like the idea of being left alone, while others prefer to work with colleagues. Unlike Statistics Norway, Statistics Sweden in its surveys on living conditions asks respondents whether they work more lone hours than they feel comfortable with. This might be one way of deconstructing the notion of lone work.
- The third dimension covers the risk of damage to employees’ health. The Working Environment Act clearly emphasises the right to a well-functioning work environment and this applies to both the physical as well as psychosocial environment. However, both the research and the living conditions surveys tend to focus on the physical risks, either connected to accidents when manipulating equipment or to violence experienced from customers or clients. Lone work here thus equals physical risks and a corresponding need to execute risk assessments and implement certain measures.
Therefore, it is clearly important to consider the psychosocial risks of working alone. These risks are more complicated to deal with than simply using technical devices such as surveillance, glass walls or safety deposit boxes. The negative effects of lone work are found at the intersection of physical and psychosocial health risks and the duration or proportion of lone work. This is a promising path for research to identify the sectors where this combination is prominent.
Health and safety issues connected to lone work – and the lack of attention to psychosocial burdens and risks – might serve as another example of the need to ‘upgrade’ the way traditional health and safety research and regulations are organised. Fewer people work in manufacturing and more work in private and public service where the risks are different from those in the previous ‘industrial society’. The Fafo report is an important reminder of the new health and safety issues facing today’s employees.