The Lone Lab Worker
Best Practices for Protecting Researchers
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Working alone increases both the likelihood of an accident and the severity of an adverse outcome. In the world of laboratory research, it is the organization’s responsibility to ensure adequate controls are in place to protect researchers and reduce the risks associated with working alone.

At research organizations, it is likely that conducting research alone is a common practice for everyone from seasoned investigators to undergraduate students. A survey conducted by the American Chemical Society Division of Chemical Health and Safety in 2010 indicated that 70.5 percent of faculty, 59.2 percent of professional staff, 52.1 percent of graduate students, and 20.1 percent of undergraduates work alone in laboratories “often” or “occasionally.”
Insight into the researcher’s mindset and the pressures of research appears on the website of the Texas Tech University Office of Research and Innovation, where a contributor describes her experiences working on her doctoral dissertation:
Out of a desire to finish my data collection, I ambitiously scheduled a 7-day workweek for several months. However, due to an oversight in my research design, my workdays rapidly escalated to 20-hour days, 7 days a week for a few months. It was my error, so I did what researchers do: I took responsibility and sweated through the project. Between experimental steps, I would sleep on the floor of the lab [. . . ]. I could not expect my colleagues [. . .] to be present 20 hours a day when my design flaw was responsible for those extreme hours. Thus, I worked around the clock, alone. When research and creative endeavors necessitate long or strange hours, scholars simply assume the role and responsibility. Our reality is that we need to be present to do our work.
An organization’s culture may encourage researchers to work alone because it could lead to breakthroughs, job advancements, or other praise. But allowing lone work may entail risks that the organization is unprepared to accept or conflict with the organization’s goals. Research organizations need to recognize the risks they face and define what is acceptable and what is not. Research isn’t normally constrained by a nine-to-five work schedule, but lone work does not necessarily occur during off hours or in the middle of the night. People are “alone” at work when they are on their own or when they cannot be seen or heard by another person. By this definition, workers who do not have direct contact with a coworker for a short time are working alone. It is not always hazardous to work alone; the hazard depends on circumstances. According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, the degree of risk for lone work depends on the location, type of work, interactions with the public, duration of the work, and the consequences of an emergency, incident, or injury. In research, it is not uncommon to find examples of incidents whose severity was likely increased by lone work. These tragic accidents should be a wake-up call for all working in laboratory research: • At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a researcher working alone in a lab almost bled to death when a distillation flask exploded and a shard of glass severed an artery (PDF). • At Kansas State University, a researcher working alone to clean a reaction vessel filled with sodium and a solvent was burned by a flash fire (PDF). • A lab fire at UCLA in 2009 resulted in the death of a research assistant who was working alone. Criminal charges were brought against the university and the lab’s principal investigator. • In April 2011, a Yale student died in a lathe accident. While this incident did not happen in a laboratory, it demonstrates that research environments are highly variable. Many laboratories have traditional shop equipment that may present additional risks for lone workers.
Health and safety professionals need to find the balance between innovation, research, and safety.
Research is dynamic, and researchers exercise a large amount of autonomy, routinely adjusting their goals as knowledge increases. It is difficult to implement worker safety and health programs that can adequately adapt to such autonomy. A policy that addresses working alone faces the same challenge. Health and safety professionals need to find the balance between innovation, research, and safety.
Benchmarking conducted by the Environmental Health and Safety Department at Washington University in St. Louis showed that many colleges and universities do not have policies addressing lone workers. Others may have a sentence or two prohibiting it or requiring review by the lab’s principal investigator. Very few institutions specify how decisions on lone work should be made. One change noted during the past year is an increase in formal lone worker programs, since most, if not all, colleges and universities had to implement modified work schedules due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even if an institution has a policy prohibiting working alone in the lab, what does compliance look like? Research is driven by experiments and must remain flexible. Even with careful planning, priorities can change quickly, and it will be difficult to verify if someone was permitted to work alone per policy requirements. In addition, most EHS staff work standard business hours and are not present to ensure compliance with a lone worker policy that prohibits certain activities. Therefore, institutions should carefully evaluate how to comply with the requirements of these types of policies.
BEST PRACTICES Since working alone in laboratories remains quite common, particularly at research institutions, guidance on how to minimize the risk should be established. This guidance should include best practices in assessing and managing the risk of a specific activity.
Colleges and universities strive to implement best practices; however, these can be difficult to obtain. Lack of money, resources, and time often put considerable constraints on researchers. Therefore, safety is not always a top priority for researchers. They are more likely to apply best practices if doing so is easy and requires little additional time or resources.
Laboratories and institutions should first establish restrictions associated with working alone. These restrictions could be based on the status of the lab worker—more stringent for minors and undergraduates, more lenient for graduate students, staff, and faculty. Other restrictions could be based on the material (chemical, radiological, or biological) or equipment; some materials and equipment pose enough hazard that the risk is too high even for the most experienced workers to use or handle alone. Guidance should clearly identify these restricted materials, equipment, and activities.
Laboratory personnel should conduct risk assessments for tasks carried out by a lone worker. These assessments should consider the hazards that might reasonably be encountered during lone work, evaluate the acceptability of lone work, and identify the controls that need to be in place if lone work is to be performed. These assessments can be part of the process already utilized for assessing hazards in the laboratory—for example, they can be incorporated into standard operating procedures (SOPs). Health and safety professionals should be engaged to assist with these assessments.
Risk assessments should consider the tasks and hazards involved in the work, the consequences resulting from a worst-case scenario, the potential for an incident that would prevent the lone worker from calling for help, the training that the worker has received, the worker’s experience, and when the work is being conducted—for example, during normal business hours, at night, on weekends, or on holidays. If the risk assessment supports a determination that the work can be performed alone, the buddy system should be used to help manage the lone worker’s personal safety. The research team should identify the methods and frequency of communication between the lone worker and the buddy and verify that proper training is completed, that both the worker and the buddy know what to do in case there is a missed check-in, and that the lone worker has been provided personal protective equipment and reviewed relevant SOPs.
The buddy system ensures that emergency services are notified if the lone worker becomes ill or injured and is unable to call for help. Examples of methods the buddy can use to maintain communication with a lone worker include visiting the lab; using software or similar applications to automate check-ins; calling, texting, or emailing the lone worker at predetermined intervals; using a video feed or webcam to livestream the lone worker; and using a wearable device that issues an alert when a lone worker has not moved or responded.
This list is not exhaustive; any method by which the lone worker’s health and safety can be periodically monitored may be used. Ideally, the buddy is knowledgeable about the lone worker’s task, the hazards involved, and proper emergency procedures for responding to accidents in the lab. The best method of communication will vary depending on the situation and the lab’s needs. Each lab should determine which methods are suitable.
TECHNOLOGY AND LONE WORKERS Smartphone apps and connected wireless devices provide quick, dependable communication in case of an emergency and can assist with managing the risks of working alone. It is important to research these tools to find one that will best fit specific needs. For example, an injured worker may not be able to speak with a 911 operator or dial for assistance. Therefore, it may be appropriate to select a system that requires only a single push of a button to contact emergency services.
Many campuses are developing apps or utilizing off-the-shelf apps that include emergency response guides and incorporating their use into written guidelines for working alone in laboratory settings. For example, Princeton University has an app with a “work alone” feature that can be used to summon help. As explained in the university’s policy for working alone,
[i]f working alone is permitted by the responsible party, along with any other restrictions set by that individual, the worker must have a phone immediately available and should be in regular contact with another person who has agreed to act as the designated safety monitor. A safety monitor is someone who acknowledges this, is familiar with the research conditions, and is willing and capable of summoning help. The Work Alone feature of the Princeton TigerSafe App is available for this purpose.

Yale University has incorporated the use of the LiveSafe App in its guidelines for staff and students working alone in laboratories. The app provides an effective way to communicate directly with Yale police.
Stony Brook University’s policy for working alone in laboratories includes the use of the SB Guardian app, which has a panic call mode that allows users to quickly notify university police in the event of an emergency. Users can also set a timer that will automatically trigger a panic call to the university police, who will then respond to their location.
ADDRESSING LONE WORK While OSHA does not require employers to develop and implement a policy for lone work, media reports indicate that the agency may cite the lack of such a policy under the General Duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. It is a best practice for organizations to recognize the risks of working alone and implement a process for monitoring lone workers. If your organization is desensitized to the risks of working alone, it may be time to develop or update your guidance for lone workers. Implementation of a lone worker risk assessment process and means for frequent communication will likely have a lasting, positive impact on your organization.
PATERICK THAYN, MS, CIH, CSP, is a worker safety and health professional at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
JANET EGGUM, MPH, CIH, CCHO, is an industrial hygienist working for CSS.
ANGELA DARTT, PhD, CIH, is the director of chemical safety in the Environmental Health and Safety Department at Washington University in St. Louis.
DAWN TOON, MS, CIH, is a health and safety officer in the Environmental Health and Safety Department at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
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Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety: OSH Answers Fact Sheets, “Working Alone—General.”
Chemical and Engineering News: “Assessing Safety: Survey Characterizes the Safety Culture in Academic Laboratories” (June 2010).
Chemistry World: “Criminal Charges Dismissed Early Against UCLA’s Patrick Harran” (September 2018).
Industrial Safety and Hygiene News: “Working Alone” (September 2004).
Nature: “University Fined After Researcher’s Death” (May 2009).
Princeton University: “Working Alone.”
The Synergist: “Fixing Lab Safety Failures” (August 2020).
The Synergist: “How to Recruit Researchers to Lab Safety” (November 2020).
The Synergist: “Laboratory Chemical Safety Incidents, 2001–2018” (November 2018).
The Synergist: Letter from James A. Kaufman (November 2014).
The Synergist: “Safety Test: What’s Behind the Rash of Incidents in Academic Labs?” (August 2014).
Texas Tech University: “Never Work Alone—Safety Hazards.”
University of California, Santa Barbara: “Lab Worker Nearly Killed While Working Alone” (PDF).