Lone but not gone

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Lone working can be beneficial for both organisation and individuals, allowing more flexible working, greater utilisation of resources and more autonomy for the worker. However, these benefits can also bring challenges and risks that need to be managed to ensure the safety of the lone workers.

There are estimated to be 6.8 million lone workers in the UK and in many sectors this number is increasing. Although it is often the safety professional who is being turned to for guidance, lone working with its specific concerns can be an unfamiliar area for some.

Traditionally we have found that housing, health, transport and social care organisations have been very aware of the lone working risks. However, in recent years other sectors such as retail, hospitality, construction and engineering have woken up to the need and benefits of proactively managing the risks that can arise when their staff work alone.  This has led to a greater understanding of the broader issues surrounding lone working, including personal safety and work-related stress.

There is no legislation that specifically prohibits lone working; the general duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act apply. There may be tasks considered too dangerous or difficult to be carried out by a single person, but for all the others, we need to ensure that our lone workers are at no greater risk than other employees. Sadly, there have been incidents where organisations have not fulfilled their legal responsibility and have paid the price in court, after tragic incidents have occurred.

In 2010 Mental Health Matters was fined £50,000 including costs for a breach of section 2(1) of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act, for failing to do all that was reasonably practicable to ensure the safety of one of their lone workers. Ashley Ewing was killed by a service user who had a history of violence and was known to be unwell when, as a lone worker, Ashley visited him at home; the charity had failed to carry out a risk assessment for the visit.

Other organisations have been accused by their own staff of “putting profits before safety” when it comes to lone working. So how can organisations ensure that they have fulfilled both their legal and moral responsibility for the safety of their lone workers?

By definition lone workers are those ‘by themselves without close or direct supervision’. In practice, there are three key groups of lone workers that we should give attention to; those working on site, mobile or remote lone workers and those that work from home. Task based risk assessments should identify risks that have increased due to the lone working element.

Some of the risks that may be increased, either in likelihood or severity, when lone working are:

  • Road Traffic Incidents when driving long distance/late/early
  • Physical violence and verbal aggression
  • Sudden illness or medical emergency
  • Slips, trips, falls (from height)
  • Manual handling injuries
  • Electrocution

As an employer, there are some simple steps that can be taken:

Implement a lone working policy that sets out your ethos and clearly communicates the organisation’s approach to lone working – including stating under what circumstances you will not allow it

Develop working procedures. Do this in partnership with your lone workers to create ownership. Measures that are owned by lone workers are often more realistic, practical and less likely to be misunderstood or even deliberately ignored

Provide a robust communication and support system for those lone workers who are mobile and away from base. An effective system that allows you to know the whereabouts of your lone workers at any point during the day combined with a facility for them to raise the alarm if in difficulty, can help to minimise risks and improve confidence amongst lone workers

Ensure your lone workers have received adequate and relevant training to provide them with all the tools, strategies and skills they need. Consistent training is shown to be one of the most effective ways to manage the risks of lone working

Empower your lone workers to take responsibility for their safety by promoting an active safety culture. Consider creating safety champions schemes among your lone workers, they can help you communicate and promote any changes, help support lone workers and report back on any concerns they may have.

Case study

Crest Nicholson Plc is one of the UK’s large house builders who has led within their sector of the construction industry when it comes to recognising and actively managing the risks associated with lone working.

Back in 2006 Martyn Price, group health, safety and environmental director for Crest Nicholson put lone working and personal safety of employees firmly on their agenda.

The very first step taken was to talk to employees in the sales and marketing department — where the majority of lone working occurred — and offer an opportunity for them to share both their concerns and ideas. They held focus groups and workshops where colleagues were invited to openly and confidentially share their experiences. This approach encouraged colleagues to become involved in the solutions and take
real ownership of the subsequent safety measures.

Martyn Price comments: “We knew this stage of the process was vital to engage our colleagues and to respect and learn from their experience. Any changes we made to the way we worked had to be realistic and beneficial for them.”

The material gathered became integral to their risk assessment process and the subsequent control measures.  Within their policies, procedures and working instructions, Crest Nicholson sets out the actions that are taken to ensure the safety of lone workers. They have implemented a safe by design specification for sales and marketing suites that ensures; lines of sight, security of personal valuables, adequate lighting, secondary egress, etc.

Managers are required to complete their own risk assessments and are provided with templates and guidance on how to ensure they are meeting the organisation’s safe standards.  

Regular face-to-face training where proactive, practical advice is provided and again colleagues are offered the chance to share their ideas and suggestions underpins all of this.

Martyn adds: “We provide specific training to match the job roles of our colleagues and the situations where they may work alone. After training events we receive feedback via the trainer, which allows us to continuously improve our processes and controls. The lone workers’ input continues to be important as they know the challenges they face”.

Crest Nicholson revisits the approach and controls on a regular basis to match technological advances and to keep up with best practice. They have implemented a lone worker system and staff wear a lone worker device that meets the British Standard accreditation and have included advice and guidance on how to gain the best from the devices used in their training.

Martyn concludes: “Keeping personal safety on the agenda can be a challenge when incidents are few and far between. But ensuring that we remind people of the ways they can help keep themselves safe when lone working and supporting them is the way we keep the risks low.”

HSE guidance on lone workers here

Nicole Vázquez is managing director at Worthwhile Training

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