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Worker privacy vs. worker safety

Posted by Mike Bolam on Jul 22, 2020 3:00:00 PM
Mike Bolam
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Which is more critical, safety or privacy?

While for some, this question has a clear answer, but there are a few key considerations. This article outlines best practices for creating a transparent and safe but protected and private employer to employee relationship. Particular focus will be placed on location tracking and worker monitoring and how to achieve the right balance between privacy and safety.

privacy vs safety

Considerations around privacy and safety

Both privacy and safety are top of mind for many employers and employees. Occupational Health and Safety organizations on federal and state levels are reporting fatal and non-fatal incidents that have a significant impact on the lives of people and families. Companies are striving for zero incidents by establishing safety programs to prevent accidents from happening. However, it may seem impossible to remove all risks from all tasks. EHS managers are working to create risk assessments that identify the right methods to help mitigate risks. In case of an incident, being able to quickly respond, requires knowing the exact location of the employee at all times, but does this justify tracking the workers' location 24/7?


Today’s technology has made it so easy to track the location of an individual as everyone is carrying a personal GPS tracking device; their mobile phone. Companies make millions of dollars by selling data on the location and movement of people and while most of this data is not personally identifiable, more and more countries and states are regulating the use of it (e.g. GDPR in Europe or CCPA in California). However, when an employee uses a phone for business purposes, the rules around privacy change drastically, giving employers the right to monitor movements, phone calls, messages and emails.

Employer best practices

Here are six simple steps to balance privacy and safety:

1. Legalities

Become familiar with any laws, regulations or contracts applicable to privacy expectations and GPS tracking in the country or state where you wish to engage in GPS tracking. This includes any labor union contracts around worker monitoring.

2. Policy

Are you handing out company owned mobile phones or do you have a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy? Make sure you have a written GPS tracking policy which outlines the business reasons for using GPS tracking, when and how employees should expect to be monitored and how the employer will use and safeguard data collected. The policy should specify and justify under what circumstances a worker is allowed to turn off GPS tracking, e.g. during lunch breaks or during tasks that do not have any risk. The policy should also include consequences if not followed. Be sure to communicate the policy to all employees, and ask that employees acknowledge their receipt and understanding of the policy.

3. Purpose

Only monitor employees to the extent that it is justified by a business need. For example, in terms of safety, no employee would argue that their privacy is being violated when a company accesses their exact location to send emergency responders in case of an accident. There should also be no argument that an employer has the right to know when someone is working alone at a site that has an elevated risk associated with it, (e.g. hazardous equipment or materials) to be able to monitor the worker for safety. However, a worker’s location doesn’t need to be tracked outside of work hours.

4. Time

Only track the location of your employees when necessary. This can be a contentious issue, as some countries define that travel to and from work are part of the employer’s responsibility and any incidents during transit would be considered work related. But beyond that, there is no business need for monitoring. Good tracking tools provide automated schedules that start and stop monitoring according to specified work hours of each individual employee.

5. Opt-out

Depending on the policy, there might be times when a worker doesn’t want to be tracked, e.g. during lunch breaks or doctor’s visits. In such cases, the ability to turn off monitoring is important. Some tools provide location sharing with other employees to increase productivity and situational awareness within a team. For activities that are not work related, there needs to be an option to stop this location sharing within the company.

6. Transparency

Make sure to explain what data is being used, for what purpose, how it is secured and who will have access to it. Develop a transparency policy in the event of a data breach and finally, inform all employees about their right to access or delete all or part of their personalized data unless you are required to keep it for legal purposes.

Topics: Safety

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