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Every single day, lone workers face a myriad of different health and safety risks and hazards…SHP hears from Dakota Murphey, who takes a closer look at lone worker safety.
Lone working refers to any activity that someone is performing for extended periods without direct or close supervision, or in the absence of colleagues nearby or within earshot.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in 2019 showed that up to 25% of the UK workforce had lone working responsibilities. As of January 2023, the number of people aged 16+ in employment was 32.81 million, suggesting that the UK’s lone workers total somewhere between 7 and 9 million.
As to what constitutes a lone worker, that encompasses a broad spectrum.
Health and social care staff work alone for long periods, whether onsite or offsite, and the same can be said for sole traders, contractors or freelancers out in the field. Delivery drivers, post office workers, service providers, estate agents, surveyors, those involved in community outreach programmes, and many other specialties could fall under the bracket of ‘lone working’.
And yet, millions of these people are regularly presented with numerous risks on a daily basis, ranging from verbal or physical abuse and harassment to serious injuries or accidents.
Organisations have a duty to protect their lone workers in their teams as much as possible. Employers should uphold stringent lone worker safety precautions across the board, precautions that encompass a broad range of factors, including risk assessment and management, location monitoring, personal security, emergency procedures and so on. They must comply with the Health and Safety Executive’s recommended framework for managing lone working risks, including violence, stress, mental well-being, medical suitability, and the workplace environment.
Proactive lone worker safety is crucial, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. Here are some important steps you can take as an employer to ensure optimum safety for your lone workers.
Identifying your lone workers and common hazards
The wide scope of a lone worker classification means that you may not automatically be fully aware of the true extent of the lone working tally across your organisation.
For instance, if you allow your staff to work from home on a flexible basis, you must bear the same level of responsibility so that they can access support in an emergency, as if they were in your office. On the flip side, if an employee is tasked with completing jobs autonomously and by themselves, perhaps on construction sites or in factories, but they are not within reach of colleagues, they should be considered lone workers. Therefore, it pays off to identify your lone workers first, including their roles, responsibilities and expectations.
Once you have identified all the lone workers that your company employs or contracts, you should categorise all the potential hazards that are present in their various environments. For example, a travelling photographer could be at risk of immediate theft or burglary if they do not ensure their equipment is adequately secured. Meanwhile, care workers visiting patients’ homes could be at risk of a violent assault or car accident while commuting.
The most common workplace hazards are ones that could cause harm to people, property, or equipment, and these should be flagged as risks. Remember that every work environment contains hazards with varying degrees of risk, where, for example, factory workers may be more prone to falls, chemical exposure, and shocks, than office workers.
Identifying as many hazards as possible allows you to lay the foundations for proactive emergency response and serious injury prevention. Anticipating and taking decisive action against risks should be your first responsibility in compiling a lone worker safety system.
Conducting a lone working risk assessment
After you have identified the workers that need protection and the potential risks that could cause them harm, these should all be categorised at various levels in a security risk assessment. This is crucial for developing an effective lone worker safety programme across your organisation.
For example, your risk assessment should account for the following, as a guide:
The risk assessment you create in detail, and that you use as a blueprint for further development and improvement, should inform you about the right processes and precautions you take. For instance, you may wish to invest in personal lone worker safety devices or alarms that provide ongoing real-time monitoring and instant alerts.
Creating and implementing policies
Creating a detailed lone worker safety policy is vital for ensuring long-term employee well-being. This is an official document that establishes your specific company rules and regulations for maximising personal and collective safety.
An official document will vary from firm to firm, based on industry, regulations and lone worker hazards, however, as a general guide, your lone worker policy document should include:
Here is an example of a lone worker policy document, provided by Positively UK.
Provision of training and ongoing support
As part of your safety documention and policy, employers must also identify the training needs of all lone-working staff. There are likely to be gaps in training for lone workers that are new to your organisation, and they may require additional supervision, provided sufficient resources can be allocated. However, even seasoned lone workers would always benefit from refresher training, particularly as many laborious or time-intensive processes become more automated and less manual.
It’s in your best interests to ensure all staff – no matter their seniority or influence – has access to material that supports your most up-to-date practices for worker safety. Employers should implement support systems for individuals that are prone to high-risk situations, whatever they may be. This could include investigation of incidents and provision of leave for staff to recover from injuries, or access counselling for traumatic events they have suffered.
Even in light of all the above guidance and advice, it’s important that all lone workers know their limits and also take a degree of responsibility to maximise their own personal safety, as well as that of others.
Employers are responsible for top-level decisions that affect workers in principle, however, they are instrumental in carrying out these actions in the correct, specified way. This means that workers themselves should report incidents in detail, assess their own risks continually, ensure they understand and acknowledge policies and procedures, attend training, and use any safety devices correctly.