07 October 2020
As we strive to stop the spread of the coronavirus, more workers are finding themselves working alone and some companies find they have lone workers for the first time. Naz Dossa looks at the safety at wellbeing of this emerging community.
SINCE THE World Health Organisation declared coronavirus a global pandemic on 11th March 2020, workplace health and safety has become an increasingly important - and increasingly complicated - challenge for many businesses. As organisations strive to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, it’s likely that more workers will be working alone – which comes with inherent risks that businesses must mitigate against.
Lone workers are defined by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to be ‘anyone who works by themselves or without close or direct supervision’. This typically covers those who are completing tasks out of direct sight or earshot of colleagues and supervisors, as well as those who travel alone to a location to do their work. There are many roles that could involve working alone some or all of the time – before the pandemic hit, it was estimated that there were around 8 million lone workers in the UK.
As the situation continues to change, and workers return to a ‘new normal’, it’s likely that many businesses will be dealing with lone workers for the first time, or a higher level of lone working than usual. Depleted workforces, budget constraints and the need for social distancing measures have led to altered shift schedules and more tasks being fulfilled by one person rather than two - sometimes in unfamiliar surroundings. And with around 46% of the UK workforce working from home at the height of the pandemic – and many organisations set to shift to remote working long-term – many workers will be working alone for the foreseeable future.
It is therefore vital that every employer understands the steps they should be taking to protect their lone workers appropriately, and every lone working employee is aware of how they can protect themselves from the heightened risks associated with working alone.
Understanding the risks
The first step in protecting lone workers is ensuring that both employers and employees alike understand why lone working is riskier than working as part of a team. The problem isn’t necessarily that the job they are doing is a more dangerous one; it’s that there is usually nobody to call on if things go wrong. If a lone worker has a fall, for example, they may not receive help in a timely manner, which could lead to more serious injuries or even a fatality.
When it comes to making on-the-spot safety decisions, lone workers are once again faced with an increased risk. No opportunity for a second opinion means a raised possibility of poor decision making - in some cases leading to workers placing themselves in unnecessary danger or in situations that can quickly escalate and become unmanageable for one person alone.
And while some lone workers will value the autonomy of their role, working alone can also have negative psychological effects: lone workers are far more likely to suffer from psychological distress, anxiety and loneliness than their team-working counterparts. This risk is likely to be heightened by the ongoing uncertainty around the coronavirus. In fact, a recent survey found that 80% of Brits feel that working from home has negatively impacted their mental health - so it’s never been more crucial for employers to consider their employees’ mental wellbeing as well as their physical wellbeing.
Mitigating the risk
The best way for employers to understand and reduce the risks to lone workers is by carrying out a detailed risk assessment. Anyone with responsibility for employees will also need to assess the dangers inherent in their daily tasks and identify ways to reduce those risks. An employer’s responsibilities are laid out by the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974), with requirements for risk assessments made more explicit through the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. It is here that employers can find detailed guidance on what precisely a risk assessment should entail - and this is broken down into practical steps on the HSE’s own website.
Once they have carried out a thorough risk assessment, employers must mitigate against every risk they have identified before workers start working alone. The HSE has recently updated its guidance on lone workers, which should be very useful to employers at this stage. The guidance requires that lone workers are properly trained, monitored and supervised, and also that employers ‘keep in touch with them and respond to any incident’. Both elements of this guidance suggest that many of the risks of lone working may be mitigated through better communication.
Facilitating better communication
When it comes to fulfilling the regulatory requirement to monitor, supervise, stay in touch with and respond to incidents affecting their lone workers, today’s employers are fortunate to have access to a wide range of communications technology; from lone worker safety apps on smartphones to dedicated personal safety devices. These solutions can facilitate vital lines of communication between a lone worker and their colleagues, but it’s important for employers to carefully consider the best solution for their workers.
Not all lone worker safety solutions are created equal, so there are certain features that safety-conscious employers will want to look out for. With slips, trips and falls consistently appearing at the top of the HSE’s list of most common health and safety incidents, it’s likely that employers will want a solution with a fall detection feature, which sends out an automatic alert when the device has changed orientation and is subsequently immobilised for a certain period of time. Employers should also consider how assistance is provided in the event of an emergency - devices that are linked to a dedicated, 24/7 Alarm Receiving Centre (ARC) are more likely to achieve quick response times than those that simply alert a third-party call centre, for example. Another key feature employers must explore is the accuracy of the device’s location features, as devices that can pinpoint a worker’s exact location could also reduce the time it takes for help to arrive in the event of a health and safety incident.
It’s also important for employers to think about what type of device or app is the most appropriate for each person’s working environment, which may mean investing in different solutions for different individuals. Carers that are working alone may appreciate a discreet button they can wear or an app they can use if they feel threatened, for example. These solutions would be inappropriate for someone working in a hazardous environment, however, as they could create a spark that could lead to a fire. Lone workers in hazardous situations should utilise an ATEX-rated device, designed to be intrinsically safe.
Employees must put their safety first
Many people will have been required to change the way they live their lives to keep themselves safe in recent months – and now they need to be prepared to change the way they work, too. Of course, this means adhering to any new policies and processes put in place to protect them while working alone, but lone workers should also be ready to advocate for their own safety if they feel it’s necessary. Employers and employees alike are adapting to new working environments, and even the most detailed risk assessments could miss some potential hazards. So, if a lone worker identifies a risk that they don’t feel they have adequate protection against, then they should flag it to their employer immediately.
Features such as two-way audio communication enable workers to contact their colleagues or supervisor whenever they need support. Workers must be trained in how to use their device, to ensure they can access this help if needed, and they should also be encouraged to use it at all times. Some may feel reluctant to reach out for help even if they have the tools to do so, which could lead them to make a poor choice when it comes to their personal safety. Giving workers examples of what they might use the device for, such as if they have a fall or if they feel they need additional PPE, can help encourage them to use their device if and when they need it.
Reducing the risk to lone workers
While lone working may carry greater risk than working as part of a team, there are plenty of steps employers and employees can take to ensure the safety of lone workers.
The best next step for organisations reopening their sites will be to revisit and refresh risk assessments; to determine how health and safety changes will affect the physical and mental health of their employees and to consider what additional equipment might be needed to protect and reassure lone workers.
Peoplesafe are lone worker safety experts, and they provide a broad range of lone working solutions, to give employers the option to select a mixture of different devices for different lone working roles.
Naz Dossa is CEO at Peoplesafe. For more information, visit www.peoplesafe.co.uk.