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Alone and Not Unseen: Profound Strategies for Lone Worker Safety with Dr. Ryan Olson

Alone and not unseen: profound strategies for lone worker safety



In this must-listen episode of The Safety Guru, we’re focusing on the critical yet often overlooked topic of lone worker safety. While they have fewer interactions with leaders and coworkers, their decisions are still shaped by the safety climate and priorities set by their organization. Join us to dive deeper into this topic with Dr. Ryan Olson, who will share his invaluable insights, groundbreaking research, and profound strategies for lone worker safety. Tune in!


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Hi, and welcome to The Safety Guru. Today, I’m very excited to have with me, Dr. Ryan Olson. He spent many years with Oregon Health and Science University and is about to start a new program in occupational health psychology. Really exciting at the University of Utah. Ryan, welcome to the show. Really excited to have you with me. You have some amazing work that you’ve done over the years, particularly around lone workers, which is really what we’re going to talk about today.

Well, thanks so much, Eric, for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here and have this conversation about my work and about safety, health, and wellbeing in general.

Excellent. And so, the work you do on lone workers is quite unique in terms of the research and such a critical, important area. So, tell me a little bit about your story. Obviously, you’ve studied occupational health psychology. Tell me a little bit about your story and your interest in loan workers.

Yeah. Well, if we cut to the initial interest in loan workers, we’d probably start at graduate school at Western Michigan University, where I had a class with John Austin, who was my mentor, and we read a case study in a book that had bus operators self-monitoring their safety driving behaviors. They reported a… The authors reported a reduction in injuries by 66 %. And I just was skeptical. To me, that sounds like a change from three to one injury. And I just don’t know. I was skeptical, and I wanted to replicate or partially replicate and see if this actually worked, if it actually changes behaviors. So, my thesis turned into a small study of four bus operators for a long period of time with observers on the process of monitoring actual driving behavior. And to my surprise, using behavioral goal setting, and self-monitoring, and feedback type approach, one of the drivers showed a very large improvement in one particular behavior, complete stopping at stop signs. And so that’s really how I got involved with so-called lone workers, was just by chance that I read this study, and I thought, I don’t know if I buy that, and I wanted to get in, and I used it as a thesis topic.

And then it was a very interesting, informative experience. I did a bunch of extra safety work with that transit authority, doing a safety assessment of their historical injury and collision experience. However, my success with the thesis led to an opportunity to work with new flight students at the School of Aviation at Western Michigan. And that project really got me deeply involved in brand new folks learning how to fly a plane. Definitely a high-risk task. Definitely. And the big initial benchmark is when do you fly on your first solo? So, how well are students being prepared for that? When do they go on their first solo? We study predictors of success doing that quickly and videotape landings, and we could talk a lot about that dissertation. Still, it was a deep experience thinking about those new people, learning a high-risk, complicated skill set, and the system trying to do this safely with minimum risk to the students and instructors was the next step. And so, after my graduate training, when I moved to Oregon and was thinking about starting to pursue a grant-funded research program, it was really data that drove me next to truck drivers.

So elevated injury rates, a range of elevated health issues, including obesity and high blood pressure, and got going with work with truck drivers, and then from there, it built out to home care workers. So, I think I can trace it all back to that chance of reading a little case study in a graduate school classroom, and now here I am 20 years later.

In this space and one of the few researching this area is so important because a lot of the interventions around occupational safety, particularly in the culture space, heavily focused on interventions that work well in a shop floor setting, an environment where you’ve got teams, but it’s much more different in terms of how do I connect with somebody who’s working independently day in and day out? A lot of these methods do work, but these are often overlooked pieces. I think of your base safety as an example; it does not work particularly well when you’ve got only one person alone. So, tell me a little bit more about why loan workers are overlooked and some of the unique concerns that relate to the work and the interventions in that space.

I think the core reason is that the workers are dispersed. They tend to work unusual schedules or in unusual places. And so it’s just challenging to find, get with the workers, and get involved to study and work with them in a way beyond just doing survey research. Just that barrier results in fewer studies being done with groups like bus operators, commercial truck drivers, and home care workers. And that’s probably the fundamental issue. It has been tremendously effortful over the years to conduct, for example, a large randomized controlled trial with truck drivers. We couldn’t do it without the support of amazing companies who basically volunteered to partner with a researcher out of the goodness of their hearts, and maybe the hope that our health research will encourage workers to stay with the company or to have good positive feelings about the company. So, both employers and unions really donate a lot of their time and service to help us get the work done. But I think it’s really about the effort of getting involved with these folks. I think technology and wearable technology should help us tremendously now and into the future to get more work done with isolated and dispersed workers.

Absolutely. And so, tell me a little bit about some of the most exposed workers that are lone workers and maybe some of the tactics that you’ve seen work in those environments.

Yeah. I’m not sure I can say the most exposed. Maybe it depends on what hazards we’re talking about. But in the spaces where I’ve worked, there are people truly alone, like a commercial truck driver, but there are also small construction crews. For example, just at my house, I had all my windows replaced last year and it was a two-person crew, and we had a huge front-picture window. And watching that two-person crew handle that big picture window and have a near, a close call, that’s lone work there too. You don’t have a team around you. It’s just you and your partner, and they do a lot of things alone during their workday. So, I think I might add construction and utilities into the mix just because they’re doing a lot of things alone, and they do experience elevated fatality rates and injury rates, as well as all the commercial drivers and the home care workers that we work with.

And I think when you talk about that construction crew with two people, similar to pilots as an example, where you’ve got two pilots, there’s also the element, or you talked about utilities where you can have a small crew doing a job, is there’s a true lone worker. Still, in a small team, I can keep what went wrong, my near-misses, and my close calls to it within our group, in which case that accident operates like a lone worker crew and can work in very remote, isolated environments. So very much, that similarity of how we speak, because that was one of the big advances in aviation, is how do you get those two people to realize that there’s value in sharing what went wrong in a flight? Yeah, and.

To look out for not just each other but also the broader workforce. So, I don’t know, off the top of my head, I don’t know about the company that installed our windows specifically, but let’s imagine they’ve got 20 employees who all do this at work. The crew that was working at my house, if there’s a safety committee that meets regularly, hopefully, there is, and lessons learned could be shared through that process so that other workers can approach similar types of tasks in a safer, less risky fashion. And so, but yet that communication is a challenge. I think with lone workers, I do think a lot about this concept in behavioral psychology, which is the free operant. The behavior studied by Skinner and many other behavioral psychologists was named the free operant because the organism was really free to behave any way it would like in the environment. And then the research was to study, well, how is that free behavior shaped by its antecedents and its consequences. And lone workers are really quite free when they’re out on their own doing the work to do the work how they want. But they do have working conditions as well that are shaped by the employer and the design of the work.

Going back to my window crew, one of the first things he said after touring our house, the lead worker, was that this was a three-day job, and I’d been given two days to do it. So, right off the bat, I knew this working crew would be dealing with safety productivity pressure because of the schedule for the work.

Sure. So, I remember when we were talking originally, you touched on new employees and the onboarding of new employees. And you had done, I believe, a study around how you onboard a new loan worker because of the vulnerability of different shifts, all sorts of different complexities.

Yeah, well, specific to onboarding a new loan worker, like going back to the flight students, the question is, well, when do you let them really go out on their own? So, there’s some assessment if they have been trained, they are skilled and knowledgeable in their work, and that they themselves feel confident that they’re ready to go and work on their own, in bus operations in the transit industry, where we’ve been working for the past five or six years on a trial of an intervention for new employees. The bus operators have the chance to learn in the classroom together and on the road together, as a group or as a cohort, which is fantastic because they can bond with each other, get to know each other, and help each other out as they’re learning. And then, once they move into the workplace, there may be some monitoring of their driving with a coach or supervisor, maybe more frequently early on. But by and large, they’re on their own pretty quickly. But I do like, in that model, some type of mentor, coach, or a class, or a group that you can learn with. And most industries sort that out, and employers will do that in a more systematic, more rigorous way, or all the way in a…

We’ve had fatality cases here in Oregon where the story is particularly tragic, where somebody is quite new to the work site and killed within the first couple of weeks on the job. One potential contributing factor in cases like that is usually that training probably was not sufficient in terms of what are the hazards of the job and what are the ways that we protect ourselves against those hazards.

I think it’s pretty cool. The element I find interesting is when you talk about keeping the cohorts together, the mentoring aspects as well, how long—I don’t know if there’s an exact duration, but how long is it worthwhile to keep some of these elements in place?

Well, yeah, that’s a great question because it’s expensive to keep people in training. You’re not generating revenue or out in service. That’s a training expense. There’s a particular study I know by the first author’s last name, Breslin. I think it was done in Ontario, Canada, and it was a study of workers’ compensation claims for the first year of workers’ experience. And the first month stands out like a sore thumb. The elevated risk for injury in the first month is well above the rest of that first year. But it did take a full year for the relative risk to drop down to one. That study to me, if it plays out in the literature, suggests that the first month is a really important time for new people to be learning, coached, and trained, and not just what they need to do in terms of productivity or service, but also safety hazards, means of protecting themselves against hazards and safety procedures and processes, including what to communicate and when, so that employers know about hazardous working conditions that could or should be eliminated or reduced through engineering controls or design controls.

And so let’s think about some of the approaches that you’ve seen that work well for loan workers, some of the key principles. You talked a little bit about the onboarding, the mentoring, and the cohorts. I know when we connected, you touched on some elements around signals and the work environment. Tell me a little bit more about some of the tactics that organizations can take to better shape the decisions of that loan worker.

Well, I mean, working from top priorities and the hierarchy of controls downward, I would just want to mention that we have studied improving working conditions through physical environment changes in truck cabs, for example. So, to reduce fatigue and try to benefit workers’ sleep, we studied an active suspension seat that reduces whole body vibrations, which increases the risk for musculoskeletal disorders, but it’s also fatiguing to get bounced around in a seat all day. We also studied a therapeutic mattress that had the potential to alter vibration exposures for team truck drivers who sleep in a moving vehicle. And then we supplemented those cab enhancements, really job design changes, with a behavioral program. That’s an example of just trying to work from working conditions downward to more behavioral interventions. As a behavioral psychologist, I tend to specialize in behavioral approaches, but I do work with engineers like Peter Johnson in that study to address working conditions. Related to that, some of my current future plans are really focused on schedule, regularity, and consistency and how that might relate to sleep regularity, health, and safety. So, I just started there. If we work downward to behavioral interventions, I think Emily Wang’s safety climate research with truck drivers suggests that lone workers, like truck drivers, are still sensitive to safety-related communications.

What is my organization’s priority? Is it really productivity, or is it really safety, or is it tied? So, truck drivers do form safety climate perceptions of the priority in the organization. Those perceptions do relate to their safety performance and motivation. And those safety climate scores also predict future collisions and injuries in the trucking industry. So, what that tells me is that lone workers may have fewer points of communication, and that may be text messages, phone calls, or an occasional meeting. However, they’re still learning from leaders in those communications what’s really important, and that’s still affecting their approach to safety.

It’s interesting because it may actually skew the data. If I’m thinking about a team-based worker where there’s maybe a huddle every morning that talks about topics, then there could be some elements in terms of how we prioritize safety in the conversation, et cetera. But the lone worker is going to get probably significantly less data, and it may not be sorted in the same way. And so the signals might feel different.

Yeah, Emily and her team, in their discussion, argued that safety climate is still a valid measure in trucking, but the responses are less shared among the drivers. So, in a manufacturing setting, the perceptions of the safety priority in the organization are more shared because the workers are together. They look side to side and upward to leadership to judge the safety priority and to calibrate their perceptions of the safety priority. But for truckers and other lone workers they will communicate with each other, but the perceptions are less shared. However, those individual-level safety climate scores were still predictive of future safety outcomes. So that’s an interesting question, and that whole area of research is important and interesting. You know, it’s quite amazing, actually, the way we develop shared perceptions of the safety priority and how consistently that perception of the safety priority relates to safety outcomes at work sites. Safety climate is, as far as I know, the best leading indicator of future injuries, collisions, and incidents.

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It just speaks to me to intentionality because a lot of organizations, if you have a mix of… When you talk about truckers as an example, they may have truckers that are in a lone-work environment, but they may have distribution centers or logistics areas where people are working in a manufacturing-like environment, loading and unloading. And so, the intentionality of the messaging may need to be very catered to the audience if we want both of them to have the right message.

Yeah. And who are the leaders influencing each group? For truck drivers, the driver manager or dispatcher, who is helping assign loads to them, supports them when they have problems on the road. That person likely has up to 50, maybe more drivers on their board. So that’s a busy supervisor. They may not always be called a supervisor, always. Sometimes, they’re called a driver manager, but they are a leader and the main source of information about the company and its priorities for that truck driver. And I recall a study once I read that just popped out at me. Dispatcher responsiveness to driver concerns in a survey study had a 0.5 correlation with driver turnover. That’s a massive correlation. So, if I’m a trucking company and I’m having turnover issues, boy, are my driver managers important people? Their relationship with the drivers has a huge effect, potentially turnover. Of course, that’s one study, and that finding was particularly strong, but I would bet, on average, that would play out if you replicated it or studied it at other places.

It’s interesting because, in a traditional context, people are going to be thinking about the emails, the posters, the conversations, the huddles, the debriefs on safety, and all the various focal points that exist. But the truck driver may be hearing disproportionately compared to the environment that’s more with lots of workers working together. And so their interactions may be a dispatcher all the time saying, When are you arriving? All productivity, time base, follow through.

Yeah. And a driver might say, I’m feeling run-ragged. That was a super long day. I spent X number of hours waiting at the loading dock, and I could really use a little extra time before I pick up my next load tomorrow. And then if they get assigned a load, that’s another… Maybe it’s a little bit earlier in the morning or at an inconvenient time, but the message received is, oh, my driver manager, the company, doesn’t really care about my sleep fatigue because they’ve just given me a work assignment that isn’t consistent with my need to get rest. And in the real world, all sorts of pressures like that happen all the time. And it can be really challenging for someone like a driver manager to make these complicated choices. The freight’s got to move, and there may be only one person close to it. So, some realities constrain leader’s and workers’ choices in situations. But I think it’s up to researchers, companies, unions, all to do our best to work together, to understand where we can have levers for change, and where we can improve the lives of workers just so we can best support and protect them, especially the people doing jobs that are very hard on their bodies and their health, and put them at risk for safety incidents.

One of the things I know you talk about is a socially-connected lone worker. Can you share a little bit about what that means and some of the principles and ideals behind it?

Yeah, I think that would be a great segue to talk a little bit about our home care workers. I say our home care workers. They do feel like family after, or a part of your work team, at least after working with them for many years. But we’ve worked primarily with home care workers, who are independent contractors, to a degree caring for people who qualify for publicly funded in-home services. So, they don’t work for an agency, they work directly for a client, or in Oregon, they’re called consumer employers, who qualify for that in-home service through a state-funded program. So, these workers care for some of society’s most vulnerable or poorest citizens, but they themselves don’t make a lot of money, often struggle to get sufficient work hours, and sufficient work, and they perform a very physically demanding job in isolation on their own. And they’re navigating this unusual relationship, where their client is also their employer and can fire them or become unhappy with them. It’s a really complicated job and demanding job to do for 13 15 bucks an hour. So, for the home care workers, when I first moved to Oregon and started learning about their job, I reflected on an experience that was really beneficial to me as a new faculty member at Santa Clara University, which was a monthly faculty forum where faculty from all over campus would get together, and for a couple of hours, they would discuss a reading, share issues they were dealing with, and support each other, sorting through complicated or challenging work-related problems.

And I thought, boy, if anybody could use that support, it might be these home care workers who don’t get to see other people who do their job regularly.


So, with collaborators here in Oregon, an ergonomist and a sports medicine physician, we developed a peer-led and scripted group program for home care workers that brings workers together regularly to learn together, set goals, both group and individual and provide structured social support. And that program called COMPAS has been really well received by workers. It’s changed a bunch of safety and health outcomes in a randomized trial, and it was adopted by the Oregon Home Care Commission in Oregon. So, it’s available to workers as a paid training course, which is tremendous. So that’s a lot to say in response to the question of socially connecting, isolated workers. But it’s like a once-a-week meeting. We’ve also studied it once a month. But these isolated workers seem to really respond to and appreciate that chance to connect with other people who do the same work. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be applied only to in-home care, but it seems in particular for this type of worker. Their answers to surveys on how connected they feel with others and their profession do change and improve along with the safety and health outcomes.

And you touched on the connection once a week versus once a month. Was there a difference between both from a frequency standpoint in terms of how connected they felt with each other?

My memory is that the social connection is about the same for both schedules. The original monthly approach we were thinking of would get them started with a yearlong program, and then perhaps they might continue on their own as an informal, monthly, community, and practice process. And what we found, getting it ready to respond to the Oregon Home Care Commission’s needs, was they really needed a course that could be implemented in a short enough period that workers could take it really like a student taking a class. And so we changed to an every other week frequency. And so there are some trade-offs. The sustained longer-term access to a socially supportive group is great in that monthly growth for a year, but it’s a lot more feasible to run and to pay workers to do it if it’s like it has a start and stop of maybe a few months. And we’re currently studying it as a 10-week program for home care workers with chronic pain. We’ve tailored the program specifically for those workers, and it’s weekly for ten weeks. And so feasibility is better that way. But also, I would have to say goal setting, engagement with goals, and accountability for working on what you’re working on is probably better with the weekly approach.

Yeah, I see the applicability to this to a lot of other lone worker groups, where if there’s a sense of connection to each other, because there’s a loneliness to being alone, and it creates a common goal, bond, as a group, I would think.

Yeah, and I think these days, in the post-pandemic world with all the hybrid work, I think the isolation and how you generate that sense of team and collective purpose applies much more broadly than it ever did before. But you’d have to think that the basic common structure of a safety committee is a great opportunity for giving lone workers a chance to get together and communicate about safety concerns, what they’d like from leadership to support their safety on the job, what do they need in terms of tools, how is the work design and work hours working for them, things like that. It, and then also to communicate, close calls like we talked about earlier in the interview.

The last question I have is really in terms of the monitoring of lone workers. With technology, there are a lot more opportunities to do remote monitoring. There have been some successes. I’ve also heard of some disasters in that regard. Everything from telematics to understanding how your driving patterns are to all sorts of tools that connect workers. Any thoughts in terms of value and maybe the way to roll them out? Because there’s also this sense of big brothers watching that I’ve heard many times. Yes.

There is pretty good evidence that this technologically intensive surveillance is really stressful for workers. So, think of the warehousing workers who are on a really tight clock, filling orders in warehouses. We don’t want to stress out workers. Stress is bad. It’s associated with heart disease and work-related stress. I mean, stress is not a soft hazard. It really is a hazard that can kill people. It’s just a little sneakier and slower than perhaps an acute traumatic injury at work. So, yeah, monitoring. I have colleagues with stories of truckers evaluating these onboard monitoring systems, with cameras on their faces and things like that. I can’t share the specifics of the stories, but the stories indicate that they aren’t necessarily well-received by workers. So, I think the key is collaboration, especially with loan workers, supporting their autonomy and their participation and decision-making. So, their decision-making processes. It reminds me a little bit of a study by Tim Ludwig, and Scott Geller, of pizza delivery drivers. And they studied collaborative safety goal setting and assigned safety goals. And then they measured, I think, turn signal use and complete stopping behavior. In the collaborative goal-setting group, the goal behavior changed, but so did the other one.

So, the discretionary extra effort for safety was better. The workers improved safety in general. For the assigned group, only the assigned behavior changed. So, collaboration generates discretionary effort. And we’ve seen a similar thing with a study of behavioral self-monitoring of health habits. One group was assigned the health behaviors to work on, one group got to choose. And the group that got to choose engaged in the process 20 % more. So I think collaboration and choice are really important, especially with all the surveillance tech that’s out there so that the workers feel like they’re being, feel like and are really being listened to that this is not just a tool for the employer to keep their thumb on them and to control them, but it really is a resource and tool for their benefit and safety, and that they have a say with how it’s used. So yeah, I think that would be my comment on that great question.

It’s interesting. I remember one organization that chose, and there’s not a proper study unless you’ve seen one, where instead of using the monitoring, this was around heartbreaking. Hence, it was more the telematic side. Instead of using punishment as a result, they use it as the driver of the incentive. So, your access to the bonus pool was based on safe driving scores. And they had a mechanism to drive it. And they had had much more success than some of the companies I’ve heard of that have gone the other approach of punishment. It doesn’t mean you don’t address from an accountability person the person that’s always hard-breaking and so forth, but that they’re trying to turn in more of a reward as opposed to punishment.

Yeah, I think that speaks to maybe it’s a general human impulse to react to and respond to things we don’t want. Aubrey Daniels called it management, by exception, probably more than Aubrey. But I remember hearing from Aubrey about it, that you’re… Basically, it’s easy and less effortful to just not do much except react to and punish the bad stuff. It is a lot more effortful and requires a lot more thought to look for opportunities to provide constructive feedback and positive reinforcement and accentuate the positive. But I do think with the collaborative goal setting, there’s so much more potential for generating a positive safety climate and a spirit of shared purpose and a culture of caring with those more positive approaches that we’re all in this together. We care for each other. We don’t want anyone to get hurt on the job, and we’re going to help each other do our best to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Excellent. Well, thank you very much, Ryan. Really appreciate you doing the work you do in the lone worker space and also sharing this on our podcast.

Yeah, thank you very much, Eric. Appreciate you having me.

And if somebody wants to learn more, is there a way they can connect with you? Is there research that they should do to access the research that you do?

Yeah, you can find my laboratory page at Oregon Health and Science University, and that should stay active for some time. Also, you should be able to find me at the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Utah. So, I should have descriptions of my work at both places for a while as I join Joe, Alan, and many others at the University of Utah to start the new Occupational Health Psychology program there.

Excellent. Thank you so much for joining us.

Thank you.

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Dr. Olson is a Professor in Occupational Health Psychology at the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Utah. His research has focused on safety, health, and well-being interventions for isolated or “lone” workers. Dr. Olson leads an internationally recognized safety and health intervention research program with commercial drivers funded by NHLBI and has also designed impactful supportive group interventions for home care workers with funding from CDC/NIOSH. Prior to joining the University of Utah, Dr. Olson was based at Oregon Health & Science University, where he was a founding investigator and past Co-Director (with Leslie Hammer) of the Oregon Healthy Workforce Center – one of ten Centers of Excellence for Total Worker Health® funded by CDC/NIOSH. He also directed the state of Oregon’s occupational health surveillance program funded by CDC/NIOSH for over a decade. His interventions have improved a range of outcomes for workers, including safety, diet, exercise, sleep, stress, and job satisfaction.

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