Employers with responsibility for lone workers need to ask themselves some important questions. Nicole Vasquez takes us through them.
Q: Have you clearly identified all those employees that lone work within your business?
Q: Are you confident that you have assessed all the risks associated with lone working?
Q: Do you have an easily accessible lone worker policy?
Q: Have you implemented effective lone working control measures (and are these being followed)?
Q: Are you happy that your lone workers have had adequate training?
Q: Do you have a system in place to allow lone workers to communicate quickly and easily if in difficulty?
Q: Could you tell me where you mobile lone workers are right now?
If you can confidently answer ‘yes’ to all of the above questions then you can turn the page and carry on reading the rest of the magazine. If on the other hand, you are not completely happy that your answer is yes to all of the above it may be worth spending five minutes reading this article.
Lone working brings many benefits to both organisations and individuals. It allows flexible working, autonomy and greater utilisation of resources. However, it can also bring challenges.
Lone workers, by their very nature, are working ‘by themselves without close or direct supervision’. So as employers or managers responsible for lone workers, if we can’t be sure what our lone workers are doing, or where or when they are doing it, how can we ensure that we have fulfilled both our legal and moral responsibility for their safety?
One of the key issues is identifying lone workers in the first place. There are estimated to be 6.8 million lone workers in the UK and yet my experience tells me that they are not always identified or given the attention or support they need. We may traditionally recognise community workers and health visitors, etc. as lone workers. However, lone working can happen in many roles in many sectors. Consider your IT workers, caretakers, salespeople, drivers and engineers, how many of them work alone for all or some of the day?
In practice, there are three key groups of lone workers that we should give attention to. Firstly, there are those working on site; then there are mobile or remote lone workers and, finally, we must not forget those that work from home.
There is no legislation that specifically prohibits lone working; the general duties under the Health and Safety at Work act apply. It falls to the employer to ensure that they have identified the associated hazards, assessed the level of risk and taken steps to manage the risks by putting in suitable control measures.
There have been incidents where organisations have not fulfilled their legal responsibility and have paid the price in court, after tragic incidents have occurred and some of them make chilling reading. In 2010 the charity Mental Health Matters was fined £50,000 including costs for a breach of section 2(1) of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, for failing to do all that was reasonably practicable to ensure the safety of one of their lone workers Ashley Ewing. Ashley was killed by a service user who had a history of violence and was known to be unwell when (as a lone worker) she visited him at home. The charity had failed to carry out a risk assessment for the visit.
Risk assessments should be carried out for the tasks that people undertake as part of their working role. If lone working is an element and this brings with it specific risks, then these should be identified and assessed along with the other risk factors.
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.
- Sudden illness or medical emergency.
- Slips, trips, falls (from height).
- Physical violence and verbal aggression.
- Manual handling injuries.
After completing risk assessments you may decide that there are certain tasks that you consider to be too dangerous or difficult to be carried out by a single person. For all the other tasks, we need to assure ourselves that our lone workers are at no greater risk than other employees.
Implementing a lone working policy and associated procedures can be a great first step. However, for most the challenge is not getting the words down on the paper, but rather translating what has been written, into actions by lone workers that will have a positive impact on their safety.
Often lone workers already have good practices that they implement unofficially – it would be wise to engage them in the process and create ownership at the beginning of the process. Measures that are owned by lone workers are often more realistic, practical and less likely to be misunderstood or deliberately ignored.
There are many practical changes that can be made in the way that people lone work to reduce the risks to their safety. If you have mobile lone workers, you should ensure that you have a robust communication system that allows the alarm to be raised if they are in difficulty. This should be combined with an effective system that allows you to know the whereabouts of your lone workers at any point during the day.
Effective training for lone workers is vitally important, but the old adage that ‘one size fits all’ could never be further from the truth than when providing lone worker training. When time and financial resources are at such a premium, organisations need to ensure that any training they invest in hits the mark and is capable of achieving the desired outcomes. It makes sense to explore what specific training your lone workers require, as a ‘sheep dip’ approach is a waste of time, money and resources.
Whatever controls you put in place for your lone workers, you should have a system to monitor their effectiveness. Consider creating safety champions amongst 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.
Just remember, to have an impact, your policies and procedures need to be bought into and adopted by your lone workers. It is ultimately the behaviour and actions of your lone workers that will keep them safe, not your paperwork.