Are you Legally Required to Provide Panic Buttons to Lone Workers?
Portable panic buttons are becoming more and more popular as the number of lone workers increases in the United States. Unfortunately, the influx of lone workers—many of whom are healthcare workers or social workers—coincides with a rise in workplace violence.
In response, more employers are beginning to wonder what their responsibilities are for lone worker safety. Specifically, employers want to know whether the law requires them to give lone workers panic buttons.
Although OSHA guidance and opinions frequently suggest the use of panic buttons to increase employee safety, historically, the law hasn’t been clear. Now, times are changing…
So are employers required to provide panic buttons?
Whether an employer is required to provide their employees with panic buttons depends on their specific circumstances and where the employees are geographically located. Employers should contact their legal counsel when deciding whether to invest in panic buttons.
This article provides information about panic button legislation, guidance, and practices, but it’s not legal advice.
Lone Workers Face Increased Risk of Workplace Violence
A lone worker is an employee who works in isolation from other employees, often out in the field as opposed to in a company building. Lone workers exist in many industries. Common lone workers include:
- social workers
- home healthcare workers
- care providers
- hotel workers
Lone workers face unique dangers on the job because they’re secluded from others. Unlike other workers, when lone workers face danger or violence on the job, they can’t receive immediate aid from, for example, law enforcement.
Studies show that in certain industries, lone workers are at a significantly higher risk of workplace violence. According to a 2016 study by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), healthcare workers alone are 12 times more likely to experience workplace violence. More recently, in 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that social and healthcare workers experience workplace violence at rates significantly higher than the national average for all industries.
Lone workers like social workers often have to enter buildings or homes where they will either be completely alone or with a client. These workers also face dangers in the community, as they often need to travel alone in unfamiliar neighborhoods. In many cases, lone workers in the community must travel on foot or park in secluded areas just to get to the patient or client’s home.
5 Tips for a Safe Home Healthcare Visit
1. Have a Communication Schedule in Place
A communication schedule establishes expected call times from employees who are out in the field. Through a communication schedule, home healthcare workers are asked to call a designated coworker by a certain time. The homecare worker will be able to confirm that they’re safe and back in their car or that they’ve left a high-risk neighborhood.
2. Remind Workers to Stay Vigilant Before and During Their Visit
Workers who provide home healthcare or social services travel to different homes and neighborhoods every day of the week. With so much travel, it’s natural for them to become so comfortable with their surroundings that they stop watching for occupational hazards or signs of danger.
Reminding employees on a regular basis to stay vigilant will keep workers attentive. Instead of giving a general reminder, point out specific hazards or signs that an employee should watch out for. For example, instead of telling an employee to “be careful,” remind them of potential hazards and ask them to remain vigilant of their surroundings in places where they might find themselves alone, like parking lots.
3. Make a Safety Plan
Safety planning includes creating company policies and practices to keep employees safe while on the job. Safety plans usually include communication plans, safety training, employee checklists, and procedures to show employees what to do should they encounter a given safety hazard.
If you’re not sure where to start with your company safety plan visit the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) home healthcare page. This page has guides for employers who need help meeting the health and safety requirements put in place by OSHA.
4. Invest in a Personal Safety Device
Personal safety devices ensure safety for home healthcare workers by allowing them to alert emergency services, like the police, when they’re in danger. Unlike a communication schedule, a personal safety device allows the person in danger to get help right away and without having to make a call.
Personal safety devices may be GPS locators, panic buttons, phone applications, or (like Guardian MPS) a combination of the three.
Learn More About Personal Safety Devices
5. Remember: It’s Okay to Leave
Employees should always place their personal safety first. Remind employees that it’s okay to leave if they believe they’re in danger.
If employees are concerned about when they should or shouldn’t leave, consider additional safety training. Safety training will help employees identify signs of danger and increase their confidence to make the decision to leave.
Panic Buttons Provide Lone Workers A Safety Net
Panic buttons help remove one of the most dangerous aspects of lone working: the inability to contact others for emergency assistance. Panic buttons give healthcare and social workers, child welfare workers, care providers, hotel employees, and other lone workers access to the outside world from their pocket or their phone. In doing so, panic buttons provide lone workers with a safety net.
Panic buttons, which include GPS tracking systems, cell phone applications, and other personal alarm systems, are often referred to in OSHA guidance documents.
OSHA: A Quick Overview
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, better known as OSHA, is a federal administrative body charged with ensuring safe and healthy working conditions for employees across all industries. Congress created OSHA when it passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (“OSH Act”).
OSHA is located within the Department of Labor and covers most private employers in the US through federal regulations and approved state plans. It also covers most public sector employers.
The OSH Act
The OSH Act requires employers to provide employees with employment and a place of employment that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm” to employees. This requirement has come to be known as the General Duty Clause.
According to the Act, employers must comply with OSHA standards. OSHA Standards, or Occupational Safety and Health Standards, are regulations issued by OSHA. OSHA also has the power to issue citations and fine employers for violating the OSH Act or its standards.
Do Current OSHA Regulations Require Panic Buttons?
Currently, there is no nationwide Occupational Safety and Health Standard that explicitly states panic buttons are required for all lone workers. However, OSHA has issued guidance and citations that refer to panic buttons as a means to comply with the OSH Act and OSHA standards.
OSHA Guidance Documents
OSHA guidance documents contain recommendations and are published by OSHA to help employers comply with OSHA standards. In its recent guidance on working protection during the COVID-19 pandemic, OSHA describes guidance recommendations as “advisory in nature and informational in content[.]”
OSHA’s Guidelines for Preventing Workplace Violence for Healthcare and Social Service Workers states that recommendations are not standards or regulations and do not create any new legal obligations under the OSH Act.
Broadly speaking, guidance documents—and their recommendations—are intended to help employers comply with OSHA, but they themselves are not law.
OSHA Guidance for Healthcare and Social Service Workers
In 2015, OSHA published Guidelines for Preventing Workplace Violence for Healthcare and Social Service Workers. It provides recommendations for developing policies and procedures to prevent workplace violence in the health and social services industry.
OSHA Recommends Violence Prevention Programs
OSHA recommends that employers implement a violence prevention program that includes the following elements:
- Management commitment and employee participation
- Worksite analysis
- Hazard prevention and controls
- Safety and health training
- Recordkeeping and program evaluation
Engineering Controls Can Include Panic Buttons
According to OSHA, one way to implement hazard prevention is to implement “engineering controls” which are changes to the employee’s workplace. Engineering controls include physical barriers, accessible exits, and panic buttons.
OSHA reminds employers that which measures taken “should be site-specific and based on the hazards identified” in a worksite analysis.
OSHA Recommends GPS Tracking and Alarms For Community Care and Field Workers
In its guidance, OSHA recommends the following possible employee safety devices for community care, home healthcare, and social services in the field:
- Paging system
- Cell Phones
- GPS Tracking
Concerning GPS tracking, OSHA adds that employers and their employees should determine “the most effective method for ensuring [the employee’s] safety  without negatively impacting working conditions.”
OSHA Recommends Panic Buttons and Means of Acquiring Assistance for Lone Workers in the Field
In its guidance, OSHA recommends that employers “ensure workers have means of communication.” This can be accomplished by cell phones or panic buttons. According to OSHA, it should be up to employees to determine if they need help from another worker law enforcement, but they should always have a cell phone or panic button as a means of communication.
These Guidelines May Become Law: The Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act (HB1195)
Although not yet signed into law, a new federal law addressing healthcare and social worker violence prevention is also on the horizon. The Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act, HB 1195, would require OSHA to issue a standard requiring employers to take action to prevent workplace violence in the healthcare and social services sectors.
The standard must be based on these Guidelines for Preventing Workplace Violence for Healthcare and Social Service Workers.
OSHA Guidance for Late-Night Retail Establishments
In 2009, OSHA issued recommendations for workplace violence prevention programs in late-night retail establishments. In that guidance, OSHA recommended (among other possible measures) alarm systems, panic buttons, hand-held alarms or noise devices, and cell phones or private channel radios “where risk is apparent or may be anticipated.”
An OSH Act gives OSHA the power to enforce the Act and OSHA standards via citations. OSHA citations hold employers responsible for OSHA violations and they are publicly available. Below are two OSHA Citations that recommend panic buttons or a means of summoning emergency assistance to comply with employee safety requirements.
1. Washington State Social Services Employer Cited for Death of Employee
In 2019, the OSHA Commission found that a Washington social services employer violated the OSH Act when it failed to implement measures to prevent workplace violence against social workers while they were in the community.
This OSHA case arose from the tragic death of an employee, who was stabbed to death while on a house visit with a client. The employee had reported her safety concerns to a supervisor after a previous visit with the client, but she was still asked to complete another visit alone. During that visit, the client attacked and killed the employee.
In this case, the Commission found that the Washington employer violated the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause. In its decision, the Commission noted that feasible means of abating violence for lone social workers included, (among other means) “providing staff with a reliable way to summon assistance when needed.”
2. New York Mental Health Facility Cited After Violent Attack
OSHA cited a mental health facility for failing to “develop and/or implement adequate measures to protect employees from assault in the workplace.” Among OSHA’s recommendations were two recommendations specific to panic buttons:
- Develop and implement the specific actions employees must take if they experience workplace violence. One recommended action was for the employee to use an alarm system that has a reliable response. Recommended alarm systems included panic buttons, beepers, cellular phones, and surveillance cameras.
- Create a written Workplace Violence Prevention Program for the hospital which includes, among other elements, workplace violence controls. These controls include, among others, “tracking systems, panic buttons, handheld alarms, noise devices, cellular phones, radios, and reliable response to those alarms.”
In addition to existing citations, OSHA has issued enforcement procedures to guide OSHA investigators in their inspections and in their decision to issue a citation. These procedures, last issued in 2017, address workplace safety for health care and social service workers. Specifically, it points to panic buttons, cell phones, and GPS tracking or paging systems as possible engineering controls that can be used to abate workplace violence.
Other “Panic Button” Laws: What They Mean for Lone Worker Employers
Some states and cities have either considered or passed panic button legislation to protect workers in healthcare facilities and hotel staff members. For example, Washington recently passed a new law requiring hotel, motel, and retail employers to provide panic buttons. Property service contractors are also subject to this requirement.
Washington’s law, which passed to protect lone workers from sexual harassment and assault, defines a panic button as
“an emergency contact device carried by an employee by which the employee may summon immediate on-scene assistance from another worker, a security guard, or a representative of the employer.”
California’s legislature considered a similar law, but it didn’t pass the Senate.
Cities have also passed staff safety laws requiring panic buttons in certain industries where lone workers are prevalent. Many of these laws specifically protect hotel workers. Certain employers in Chicago, Long Beach, Sacramento, and Miami Beach are all required to provide employees with panic buttons.
Cities, states, and OSHA have all acknowledged that lone workers, particularly those in certain industries, face unique dangers that require appropriate safety measures. Resources provided by these different entities often recommend panic buttons, GPS systems, or other personal alarm systems for workers likely to work by themselves, in the community, or in an isolated working environment.
For employers, whether their employees need panic buttons will depend on many factors. Employers should discuss all employee safety legal requirements, including the use of panic buttons, with their counsel.