With oil prices gradually rising in recent weeks, oil production sites that were shuttered during the industry downturn finally are gearing up again for operation, perhaps marking an end to an extended slump in the oil market. As oil companies react to these improving conditions, more remote workers will be driving hundreds of miles weekly on back roads in rural areas to work on compressor stations, pipelines and pump jacks. It's a fact of life for thousands of workers in the oil and gas industry. 

These workers also present a challenge for their employers. On the job, they face a host of occupational hazards such as slips and falls, electrocution, falling objects, cuts and burns and toxic and flammable gas exposure, any of which could seriously injure or kill them. Because they work remotely, it is difficult for employers to monitor their safety and take appropriate action if necessary.

Cloud-based computing and wireless, mobile technology have created a new era of safety for lone workers, going beyond current safety standards. With today's connected technology, safety managers now can receive a constant stream of real-time data on a lone worker's exact location as well as their biophysical and atmospheric conditions, and can monitor their safety and initiate or assist with decisive or preemptive safety actions like never before, from anywhere in the world.

Being "out of sight" and even potentially "out of touch" places remote lone workers at risks beyond those faced by their work-based colleagues – even when remote workers are armed with added personal safety measures.

Lack of Visibility

Depending on their work assignments, many remote lone workers will carry a portable gas detector, but if there's a gas alarm, they may be the only ones who know if it sounds. If a worker fails to report the alarm, managers could risk sending others into a dangerous situation. Similarly, if a remote worker loses consciousness from an exposure or other safety incident, managers may not know they have a "man down." And if a worker fails to bump test the detector on schedule, safety managers may not learn about it until it's too late. This lack of visibility can:

  • Increase the safety risk of remote lone workers.
  • Increase the risk of noncompliance with gas detection or company safety procedures.
  • Increase the manual time – and cost – required for tracking down lone workers, verifying their compliance, collecting data and checking the maintenance status of vehicles.
  • Increase the risk of lost assets.
  • Increase risk to a company's reputation.

When it comes to monitoring and ensuring the safety of remote lone workers, safety managers have limited options. They can equip workers with GPS tracking devices and panic buttons, or they can assign a wireless personal gas detector that sends alarm data to a controller.

As good as these technologies are, they have shortcomings for remote workers. None provide safety managers with the equivalent of a quick peek out a window for "live" look at the location or status of their remote lone workers:

  • A panic button is of limited use if a worker already is down due to gas exposure, a fall or other safety incident and is unconscious or unable to move to activate the alarm.
  • Other alarms, which rely on cellular networks, may prove unavailable or unreliable depending on network and environmental conditions.
  • Personal gas detectors will warn of a gas emergency but not other hazards. Moreover, they alert only the worker; managers remain unaware of the emergency. For data analysis, detectors must be brought into the office for data retrieval.
  • Manual check-in policies only are as effective as a worker's network connection and memory to make the call.

From an overall management standpoint, individual personal solutions – such as gas detection units, safety and location monitoring, worker communications and asset tracking – usually are installed, maintained and monitored as separate components. This lack of integration increases the management burden for safety managers and quite possibly increases the safety risk for remote workers.

With the application of next-generation Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technology, remote workers may continue to work remotely but they are no longer alone. Cloud-based, mobile, wireless monitoring solutions can relay essential information about a worker's location, the presence of dangerous gases and biometric data about the employee back to the employer so they can monitor their worker's safety.

Conveying safety and location data from remote lone workers to safety managers via GPS in real or near-real time can increase the safety and productivity of workers in distant locations.  
One example of how this is done is by pairing single- or four-gas wireless portable gas monitor and docking/data management systems with an enterprise IIoT platform for location-based asset management. With a connected solution, managers can locate workers on demand, check near real-time readings of gas monitors, receive automatic alerts of gas alarms and man-down incidents, perform site check-in/check-out, send two-way text messages and track vehicle maintenance, fuel usage and driving habits.

In a typical real-world connectivity example, the portable gas monitor would provide information on gas concentration levels and location through a secure WiFi connection to the broadband modem, which operates in satellite/cellular dual mode and automatically can switch from cellular to satellite transmission when the cellular signal is out of range. The information is displayed on a personal computer, laptop or smartphone with an Internet connection. The portable docking module is used for bump testing the portable gas monitor units, logging data and managing records.

Remote Monitoring

In the connected, lone worker paradigm, each worker and his or her vehicle comprise a portable, wireless network. Each worker should be equipped with a gas portable monitor that functions on its own WiFi network. The unit features a gas sensor, an onboard man-down inertial sensor, panic button and two-way texting. A router located in the worker's vehicle provides connectivity and visibility of the worker and the vehicle to the cloud-based platform, enabling managers to view the gas readings on a remote worker's detector at any time.

If there is an alarm, managers will know about it immediately, even if a worker forgets to report it or can't make contact due to an injury. The result is faster, smarter response planning that provides responders with a live update of the situation and hazards present.

Near Real-Time Visibility and Communications

A cloud-based management dashboard, accessible from any computer or mobile device with an internet connection, can deliver near real-time safety and operational intelligence in the form of visibility, alerts, analytics and asset management information to managers enterprise-wide. Remote workers are never out of touch.

Managers can "click" into the status of a remote worker to review gas readings, emergency safety alerts and more. Alarm notifications are automatic. Man-down alerts warn managers when a remote worker stops moving. A manual panic button is available to the worker to signal personal emergencies. Managers can send and receive text messages with workers. Check-in and check-out status and shift messages are automatic. GPS tracking enables managers to pinpoint both worker and vehicle locations.

Intelligent System Management

At the worker's home base, a networkable docking and data management station now can perform bump tests, calibration and detector configuration, send email notices and automate recordkeeping.

Fleet management further can be improved with GPS asset tracking. Dashboards and analytics help managers track vehicle usage, reduce fuel costs, anticipate maintenance and improve safety. Additional features include journey management and driver scorecards, vehicle theft prevention and recovery, and preventive maintenance through asset tracking and engine diagnostics.

With nearly 100 percent on-demand data availability – even to the most far-flung points of an enterprise  –  a connected remote worker solution is a potential lifesaving tool for remote workers and their employers.

Companies always have had a responsibility to look after the safety and well-being of all their employees. Now, with the application of IIoT and cloud-based technology, even for remote lone workers, no one should be left behind.

Ken Schmidt is vice president/general manager of Honeywell Industrial Safety. He has 20-plus years of experience in the sales, marketing and engineering of portable gas detection technologies and solutions. Brent Moore is the president and CEO of Trakopolis. Since founding the company in 2009, he has led the company's development.