Are businesses taking their duty of care seriously enough?

More than six million people in the UK work either in isolation or without direct supervision, often in places or circumstances that put them at potential risk.

The need for businesses to protect the health and safety of their workers is enshrined in UK legislation. Although there’s no doubt that companies endeavour to comply with health and safety regulations, a nuanced question remains: employers know they have a duty of care, but do they care about their duty?

A surprising number of companies do the bare minimum to safeguard those who work alone, adopting approaches that – while compliant – leave their workers highly vulnerable. The potential consequences – financial, reputational and human – are significant.

Quite simply, protecting the workforce is not a choice, it’s a duty of care that every employer has. With the penalties for failure severe, a lone worker accident could have a detrimental impact.

Protecting staff today

The most dangerous locations for lone workers are obvious: wind turbines, oil and gas refineries, manufacturing plants and distilleries are well-known hazardous environments. But conventional workplaces also present risks to council workers and others that work out in the community and remotely.

Yet despite increasing regulatory scrutiny, a high number of UK organisations admit their ability to identify and respond to an emergency is inadequate. In 2016 our survey of UK organisations revealed that a quarter of companies that deploy lone workers would take more than 30 minutes to discover if one had been rendered unconscious. A worrying 15% would take longer than an hour. Similarly, 25% of companies would take more than 10 minutes to locate an unconscious worker, with 12% taking over half an hour. These are troubling revelations. In the game of life, every second counts.

The best lone worker strategies are developed in partnership with telecoms experts. Photograph: iStock / baranozdemir

 The results might not be surprising. After all, the survey also highlights that 60% of companies with staff who work alone don’t issue them with lone worker devices. Many rely on manual processes where lone workers use their mobile phones to check in with site-based operators at regular intervals.

Equally, some companies require lone workers to dial an emergency number in the event of an accident. This approach is not only contingent on a mobile signal, it’s futile in the event of serious injury. In either situation, the process is dependent on busy operators being available to take the call and escalate a response. If they’re not, the vulnerable lone worker is required to try again. And all the while, the clock is ticking. That many companies fail to document this activity to create an accessible audit trail is just the icing on the cake.

Purchasing decisions on lone worker devices are often based on price rather than business needs, and they commonly result in the acquisition of solutions that are inappropriate, ineffective or, worst of all, unused. Fittingly, such decisions are made in isolation, without insight or buy-in from the individuals they’re designed to protect.

Being proactive

Thankfully, the risks associated with the vast majority of lone worker emergencies can be mitigated if companies adopt the right approach.

 The idea of using the Best Available Technology Not Entailing Excessive Cost (BATNEEC) was first introduced in 1984 with the EU Directive 84/360/EEC and applied to air pollution emissions from large industrial installations. It encourages businesses to make optimal use of cost-effective innovation that can mitigate risk. In the area of lone worker protection, such innovation not only exists, it commonly takes the form of technology we use every day.

Moving away from silo thinking

The best lone worker strategies are developed in partnership with telecoms experts whose familiarity with the variable demands of remote and hazardous environments can help tailor the most appropriate solutions. In addition, with health and safety a collective responsibility, developing the right roadmap requires cross-functional engagement with stakeholders across the enterprise – guided by a trusted partner.

Lone worker solutions do not sit in silos – they integrate into the fabric of an organisation. As such, the procurement of a lone worker system should be a holistic consideration for any business.

Klaus Allion is managing director of ANT Telecom