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July 11, 2012

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Retail – Lone workers – Single file

Robbery in the retail sector costs the UK millions of pounds every year and, in many cases, the only thing standing between the perpetrators and their objective is a lone shop assistant, or storeperson. Consequently, warns Craig Swallow, it is crucial that such workers are provided with the best possible protection, including the means to summon assistance quickly and effectively.

Mention ‘lone worker’ to most people and they will immediately think of a district nurse, or a meter-reader, or a long-distance lorry driver. Rarely will they come up with retail workers but, as the largest private-sector employer in the UK, retail has hundreds of thousands of lone workers, either on a full or part-time basis. Think of the staff who open and close stores, go on banking runs, conduct warehouse operations, or those involved in delivery networks and regional management.

Figures for 2011 from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) show there are some 285,000 retail outlets in the UK. Over the last decade, store formats have changed considerably in line with how we consume – we now demand greater convenience, speed and choice in relation to the products we buy. This has helped shape the emergence of an increasing number of smaller-format stores, often with lower numbers of staff and longer opening hours, which, in turn, have an impact on how retail organisations meet their duty of care to employees.

Different roles generally result in different risk profiles; however, verbal abuse and robbery remain the biggest concerns. According to the BRC’s Retail Crime Survey 2011:

  • verbal abuse of retail staff increased by more than 80 per cent, with threats of violence also rising;
  • robberies rose by 20 per cent, with retailers reporting an increase in the use of weapons and violence; and
  • typical security measures, such as CCTV and fixed panic alarms, are unable to capture, or verify verbal abuse directed at staff.

Of course, risk to a business or staff cannot entirely be removed but organisations can do more to ensure it is minimised through assessment, training, communication, and exchange of information (see panel overleaf). Relevant monitoring and alarm systems should also be part of any retail organisation’s package of measures to safeguard lone and vulnerable workers, and the most important feature of these is that they capture evidence effectively when incidents take place, and raise an alarm at an early stage.

Push that button

Risk has undoubtedly changed – gone are the days when it was exclusive to the point of sale – yet many retailers still deploy under-counter, fixed panic alarms as a solution. There is a number of problems with these:

  • Fixed panic alarms typically do not capture audio evidence as a situation is unfolding, meaning a response cannot be informed and tailored accordingly. If audio is captured it tends to be from a speaker in the alarm panel and not directly from the incident point;
  • The lack of audio information means third-party evaluation of the situation is hampered. Consequently, fixed systems generate a high number of false alarms because they offer less scope for human judgement. If false alarms are a regular occurrence, the organisation could lose its Unique Reference Number (URN – see below);
  • There is less evidence about an incident to use retrospectively, if necessary;
  • If an incident happens away from the point of sale, or the point where the alarm is fixed, it is unlikely to be used, or, at best, will suffer a time delay in use; and
  • They cannot help a worker in distress who happens to be travelling to, from, or during work.1

Taking the first two points, generating a response is clearly the most important function of an alarm system, but it is equally important that it is the right response for the situation. Take the tragic case of PC Sharon Beshenivsky, who was fatally wounded in 2005, when she responded to a panic alarm activated during a robbery attempt on a Bradford travel agency. Had the full scale and nature of the incident been captured more effectively as it was unfolding, the Police response deployed would likely have been very different.

Naturally, the Police needs to respond to situations appropriately while maximising resources – therefore, a suitable method for escalation is required. The most effective way to elicit a Police response is to escalate via a URN. The Unique Reference Number allows an emergency alarm to be escalated one level above a 999 call, i.e. defined by the Association Of Chief Police Officers for England, Wales and Northern Ireland (ACPO) as a ‘Type A’ alarm.

URNs must be issued by a local Police force on the acceptance of an application from a client, and for an annual subscription fee. To comply, the client needs to demonstrate that appropriate and qualified technology is deployed correctly.

Police forces retain the right to revoke a URN if there is a disproportionate number of false alarms from a particular source. It is essential, therefore, that any alarm be used responsibly so an organisation does not lose its URN. The management costs and increase in insurance premiums arising from a lost URN can be significant.

ACPO statistics for 2010 show that fixed panic alarms generate the majority of false alarms.2 That year, there were 1.1 million remote alarm systems recorded in England & Wales, with, on average, 20 per cent of them having had at least one false alarm. Of the 251,149 alarms recorded, nearly 85 per cent of them were false – at massive cost to the Police in terms of resources and the management time involved.

Conversely, statistics collated by the British Security Industry Association’s Lone Worker Steering Group3 (comprising the leading solution providers in the UK) show mobile lone-worker alarms are far more efficient than fixed-system, from a false-alarm perspective. In the first three quarters of 2011 there were 135,428 ‘Red Alerts’ (alarms) raised by users of such systems. Over the same period, only 68 false alarms were subsequently passed to the Police – an average of eight a month.

Like any of the solutions already discussed, a mobile lone-worker alarm is obviously not a ‘one size fits all’ proposition but there are clear benefits to deploying them in tandem with other measures and technologies.

Always on hand

A mobile, GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications)-based lone-worker device can be used effectively to reduce the impact of the aforementioned limitations. Lone-worker alarms, because they are carried at all times by the user, offer protection away from the point of sale. Activation is easier and more discreet than with fixed panic alarms. A further advantage is that in the case of ‘man down’, certain devices can automatically alarm if they detect that the wearer has become incapacitated.

Because they use wireless technology (GSM) lone-worker alarms are easy to use, with little ongoing maintenance required. No specialist expertise is necessary, and permission does not have to be sought from site landlords. Lone-worker alarms can also be pooled among staff at the same site.

Any credible lone-worker alarm will capture audio and facilitate operator discernment. Audio evidence can support staff dealing with verbally abusive customers, or as part of a defined process to engage with those suspected of in-store theft.

In particular, those audited and approved against BS 84844 (the British Standard for lone-worker device services) allow a user to benefit from a ‘Type A’ alarm escalation via a URN attached to an Alarm Receiving Centre and thus allowing an element of discernment as part of the escalation process. Typically, a single agreement will cover all the solutions deployed by a single organisation (England and Wales). Such national deployment of systems is quick and effective. Furthermore, it is the ARC, not the retailer, that will be held accountable for any ‘over-enthusiastic’ escalation volumes.

ACPO’s stance on the lone-worker standard is very clear in that only lone-worker solutions approved by a UKAS (UK Accreditation Service) body can guarantee an alarm escalation via a URN. Earlier this year, ACPO compared alarm escalations via a URN (Type A) with a 999/101 call (Type B) and confirmed: “When a Police response is given to a Type ‘B’ alarm, experience shows that there is a significant time delay in despatching a Police response compared to the URN system. This is due to the questions that need to be asked to verify if it is a genuine alarm situation. This time lapse could be vital if a person is in immediate danger.”

ACPO has also confirmed that it is to review its URN charging procedures later this year. This could result in each retail outlet requiring an individual URN, thus increasing the costs to large multiples, should a fixed panic alarm continue to be their preferred solution.

There are myriad measures that employers in the retail sector can use to help prevent and manage the risk of violence to lone workers. The most effective solutions usually arise from the way the business is run, such as staff training, job design and changes to the physical environment. Technological solutions and security equipment do involve a cost but the benefit of having a safer, more confident workforce far outweighs this. Knowing that there are proper support systems in place means staff will feel happier and thus are likely to be more productive and take less time off.    

1    USDAW’s (Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers) ‘Have a Safe Journey’ campaign and membership study launched in 2010 found that more than 50 per cent of female members surveyed listed ‘safely walking’ and ‘dark car parks’ as major concerns during a journey. In the retail sector, such situations are routinely experienced by key-holders and all staff during winter months. To see the results of the survey, visit
2    Figures on false and genuine alarms, as well as on arrests made as a result, are collated from Police forces around the country by ACPO every year –
3    For more information on this group, visit
4    BS 8484 – Code of practice for the provision of lone-worker device (LWD) services – Disciplines/Risk-Management/New-BSI-guidance-to-help-protect-lone-workers/

Further information – for a toolkit on managing violence in licensed and retail premises, visit toolkit/index.htm

Craig Swallow is managing director of Connexion2.

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