Lone working is on the increase and employers must ensure they assess the risks involved and properly train and equip their staff to keep them as safe as possible.
Employers have a duty of care to their workers and while there are no specific regulations governing lone workers, there are several pieces of legislation that relate to their general safety. These include the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 and Corporate Manslaughter Act 2007.
Organisations therefore have a legal responsibility to look after the health and safety of their employees. There are also sound business reasons for taking the time, trouble and indeed expense of protecting the workforce.
The Health and Safety Executive defines a lone worker as ‘someone who works by themselves without close or direct supervision’. This includes those who work alone from a fixed base such as shops and petrol stations and those who work separately from others on the same premises or work outside normal hours such as security staff and cleaners.
Then there are those who work away from a fixed base such as maintenance workers, utility field workers, health and social care workers, environment inspectors, sales reps and housing (inspectors, estate agents). Agricultural, construction and warehouse workers can also be in this category.
Home workers, of whom there are an increasingly large number, thanks to modern telecommunications, are another group, and finally there are mobile workers, particularly in transport and logistics, such as train, bus, lorry, van and taxi drivers.
The number of lone workers in the UK is estimated to be between six and eight million out of a total workforce of around 31 million, making around 20 per cent of the workforce. The NHS alone employs up to 100,000 healthcare professionals (9 per cent of its workforce) who work on their own every day.
Lone workers are not necessarily exposed to a higher risk of accidents or violence, but working alone does increase their vulnerability to differing degrees depending on the nature and whereabouts of the work. The main categories of risk are accidents or emergencies arising out of the work, sudden illnesses, and physical violence from members of the public and/or intruders.
Statistics from the Crime Survey for England and Wales indicate that as many as 150 lone workers are either physically or verbally attacked every day.
Employers are required to undertake a risk assessment to determine whether or not an employee is safe to work alone. They need to implement a lone worker policy and training programme. They should equip staff with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and above all provide two-way communication devices, personal safety alarms and potentially monitoring software connected to 24/7 help desks.
However, a survey conducted in the UK by two-way radio manufacturer Hytera Communications in conjunction with Health and Safety at Work magazine in 2017 revealed that many lone workers are being sent out without appropriate communications equipment.
Nearly 82 per cent of survey participants said they relied on mobile phones as their main communication system in the field, despite admitting that mobile phones were not a solution best suited to ensure safety. Unreliable mobile phone coverage was an issue as well as concern about mobiles being a potential distraction and an unnecessary cost on the business.
Just 42 per cent of organisations said they used two-way radios. Less than one-third (31.4 per cent) provided employees with lone worker technology, either via the two-way radio or a separate device. Even more startling, one-in-five businesses admitted to having no safety-critical communications at all. Of those, 95 per cent work in potentially hazardous conditions, such as in the oil and gas, construction and manufacturing industries.
Lone workers need access to instant communications in the event of an accident or emergency. Unlike mobile phones, two-way radios such as Digital Mobile Radio (DMR) terminals, provide instant push-to-talk communications and group calling. Emergency alert buttons, lone worker and man down alarms both can send automatic alerts to controllers if the worker is incapacitated or unconscious.
GPS equipped with two-way radios also enable controllers to track and monitor the whereabouts of lone workers. If the lone worker is unable to communicate, the GPS will provide an accurate location allowing help to be dispatched more rightly and quickly.
GPS can also be used to create geofences and will trigger an alarm if the employee enters a hazardous or forbidden area. Intrinsically safe ATEX radios are also available for employees working in potentially explosive atmospheres such as those in the oil and gas and petrochemical industries.
Radios offer a complete health and safety toolkit as they provide communications, tracking and monitoring systems and a number of different safety alerts, so lone workers do not need to carry multiple devices.
Investing in a two-way radio system does require an initial capital outlay, but give the organisations a robust, reliable and highly available private network where coverage and capacity can be accurately tailored to meet operational needs.
All these measures in place can help increase staff productivity and provide protection and communications for lone workers.
Matthew Napier is sales director at Hytera Communications (UK)
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By Stephen Wheatley, UK Hearing Conservation Association on 13 October 2021
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