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28 September 2021
Naz Dossa examines how to ensure worker safety comes first as we emerge from the pandemic and face a new working environment.
A LONE worker is defined by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) as an employee who works by themselves without close or direct supervision. It is therefore no surprise that, since being told to stay at home, work from home wherever possible and social distance thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK has seen a huge increase in the number of lone workers.
It is estimated that there are currently between six to eight million lone workers in the UK -1 which equates to approximately 20% of the UK’s workforce - and that figure is rising. As a result, we need to be mindful of the impact of lone working on the physical and mental wellbeing of an employee.
We only need to look at recent headlines regarding the abuse suffered by those working in the retail and hospitality sectors to know that working without close supervision or a colleague present can increase the likelihood of a public-facing worker experiencing violence and / or aggression and harassment. Add to that increased levels of stress and feelings of isolation for the home worker and it is clear that employers have their work cut out for them when it comes to providing effective health and safety support.
What needs to happen now is for employers to take a fresh look at health and safety in the workplace and find better methods to keep employees safe - whether it’s a frontline worker experiencing abuse from the general public or someone working from home whose mental health might be at greater risk.
Identifying lone workers
It is not always as obvious as you might think to identify lone workers but they will tend to find themselves in some - or perhaps all - of the following situations:
- Travelling alone to attend meetings, home visits, business trips or other events off the standard work premises
- Arriving on site before others to open up or start an early shift
- Staying behind to work late or lock up after hours
- Working separately from colleagues in a public facing role
- Working remotely or from home
It is also important to look at the type of work and working environments that employees find themselves in such as; going into a stock room to retrieve goods, being left alone to cover breaks, filling in for colleagues that are on leave or living or working in an area with a high crime rate.
The space that workers operate in is also a key consideration. For instance, working across a large area such as a factory or warehouse, building site, hospital or school. Anywhere where an employee may have to cover a lot of ground and be on their own for an unknown amount of time presents a risk if they cannot easily call for - and receive, help.
Analysing a worker’s immediate environment is essential to determining risk. Will employees be able to hear others clearly or is there noisy machinery, a tannoy system or other noise factor that would hinder a worker’s ability to get attention quickly in an emergency situation? Will employees be able to see each other all of the time or is there a corner or piece of equipment blocking the view?
Once you have identified who is at risk, why they are at risk and what the risk is, the task of embedding a robust safety culture to ensure their safety is within reach.
There are myriad physical risks that the lone worker faces in comparison to those who work in a team or with close supervision. These range from the obvious to those that are less clear.
One of the more obvious risks is if a lone worker were to have an accident - to be incapacitated by tripping and falling for instance - they could be reliant on someone else arriving at the scene in order to get help. Even the smallest accidents can turn into something more serious if help is not easy to come by.
In a public facing role, there is no ‘safety in numbers’ for a lone worker to rely on. This can prove especially hazardous for jobs such as a security officer or at-home healthcare provider as they can be seen as easy targets to those wanting to take advantage of their increased vulnerability.
Complacency is a risk factor that can be overlooked and may not be as obvious to an employer. When someone is comfortable in their role and used to carrying out the same tasks alone, mistakes can still be made. Without immediate supervision, it’s easy to let your mind wander whilst completing a job, which can result in an incident.
The team at Peoplesafe have seen many such situations. For instance, an NHS Mental Health Nurse was stabbed by a patient and used their lone worker device to raise the alarm. The perpetrator was still on the scene but the police and ambulance services arrived just four minutes later after the Peoplesafe Controller used the Unique Reference Number (URN).
There is a transformation taking place right across the UK’s world of work - and it’s creating more lone workers than ever before. The reasons are various - for some employees, work that has always been carried out in an office is now undertaken from home. For others, stretched resources and increased demand mean that work previously shared must now be managed without that extra support.
According to the Centre for Mental Health, mental health problems at work cost the UK economy £34.9bn last year - it’s clear that protecting lone workers and providing support for their mental wellbeing isn’t only the right thing to do, it also makes good business sense.
Signs to watch out for
It is vital to recognise that the signs exhibited by each person will be different - and that some people will not exhibit any signs at all. Some key indicators that employers should look out for include:
- Suddenly reduced or unpredictable performance
- Neglect of safety advice or more accidents
- Withdrawal; being difficult to reach by phone or electronic means
- High rates of sickness absence
- Being short tempered or having outbursts of anger
Duty of care
As an employer, you have an obligation to provide a healthy and safe working environment for your employees, also known as your duty of care.
In the current climate, duty of care means putting extra measures in place to allow employees to carry out their work safely. For example, making sure you provide your employees with adequate PPE and training on how to use it.
Of course, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) provides guidance to help protect employees, with specific guidance available when it comes to lone and vulnerable workers, and they have the power to take action should an incident occur and the employer is found to have acted inadequately when it comes to duty of care. But most importantly, any work-related incident could result in employees being left with life changing mental or physical conditions.
New protection methods
The good news is that with new risks, come ideas for new protection methods. In recent years, we have seen an overwhelming shift towards the use of technology and smarter solutions to help protect employees and it is clear that our health and safety culture will continue to rely on technology to keep workers safe in the future. As such, we predict that technology will increasingly become part of an employee’s essential toolkit, marking the shift from PPE to PPET (Personal Protective Equipment and Technology) to prevent, manage and respond to risks in the workplace.
Whether through investment in lone worker devices such as a body worn camera or a lone worker app on a smartphone - or simply an online video call to check in on a member of staff displaying symptoms of poor mental health, technology has a huge part to play in keeping lone workers safe and healthy.
There are undoubtedly positive outcomes from having to meet the challenges faced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Finding new solutions with long term merit will continue to be high on the health and safety agenda as we enter a new, post-pandemic chapter in the workplace.
For more information on how to protect your workers from the health and safety risks they’re facing, Peoplesafe’s risk assessment and lone worker policy guide offers free advice and ideas.
For more specialist advice relating to physical and mental wellbeing in the workplace, the HSE website has a number of resources covering these topics.
Naz Dossa is CEO at Peoplesafe. For more information, visit www.peoplesafe.co.uk