Features: April 30th, 2010

By David Lancaster

The number of lone workers in the public sector is increasing rapidly and this growth is creating problems for their parent organizations. Staff working outside normal office hours and those who work away from their organisation’s base, are vulnerable to both verbal and physical abuse. The author describes how technology can support lone workers and offer protection.

In today’s dynamic 21st century world the sheer scope of developments in the organisational environment has been phenomenal. One key area is the changes that have occurred in the work place itself. For instance, a far greater number of people than ever before are now lone workers. This growing group spends a proportion of their working day with no direct contact with colleagues and often with no supervision from managers; they tend to work in isolation. The nature of such roles mean that these people may work on their own on a daily basis, or perhaps less frequently, but what is clear is that it is a fundamental part of many roles within the sector.

In the public sector there are a number of different types of lone workers. They range from people who work outside normal office hours such as security staff, or night cleaners; and people who work away from their organisation’s base, such as maintenance workers or traffic wardens; to mobile workers such as social workers or GPs.

It is these jobs that open employees up to a range of dangers, and although the risks are not necessarily higher, lone workers are certainly more vulnerable than their office-based colleagues. The risks can be verbal or physical, plus there are other hazards to be mindful of such as traffic accidents, fire, theft, and even dangerous animals.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, the most common key risk is alcohol and drug use by clients and members of the public with whom the lone worker comes into contact. Other risks listed include geographic location, as some areas have a higher risk of violence; the late evening or early morning, due to fewer people being around, and more unsavory characters present; the nature of the job itself; and the clients’ or customers’ behaviour.

The consequences of incidences are enormous. For staff there can be serious effects. Stress, psychological issues, low morale and loss of confidence can all affect the quality of work and lead to time off work. Consequently these issues impact the organisation in terms of staff recruitment and retention, low morale and productivity, and sick leave; all of which are costly.

Every year millions of pounds are spent on security, training, sick leave and even legal costs. To highlight the extent of this issue in just one area of the public sector, according to the NHS Security Management Service in 2008/09 there were 54,758 attacks on NHS staff in England. These are of course only the incidents that have been reported, there are sadly many attacks that go unreported.

Innovative ways of working

With local authorities now facing shrinking budgets and subsequent pressure to cut costs and improve efficiencies, there is a clear move to find innovative new ways of working. This is reflected in the level of adoption of new technologies in recent years.

Mobile technologies for instance now play an enormous role across industries, and have secured their position at the forefront of delivering enhanced services. Many organisations across the public sector have recognised the benefits. The areas in which these types of solutions have been adopted are endless. From surgeries sending SMS reminders with the aim of reducing missed appointments, traffic wardens inputting data to a PDA, or a paramedic using a tablet PC to record information, mobile technologies have successfully hit the public sector in many guises.

For lone workers, mobile technologies can play an important role in their safety and wellbeing as many have built in features specifically for field workers.

In its simplest and most common form, panic buttons on mobile devices such as a PDA, BlackBerry or Smartphone can be pressed by lone workers who consider themselves to be in a risky situation. An SMS alert and email is then triggered which states that person’s location. The major benefit for the user is that it is such a discrete process that others will be unaware that a call for help has been raised. This is invaluable if the lone worker is in difficult situation, as trying to use a mobile to log a call for help can be problematic and can enflame tense situations further. It has also been known to lead to physical aggression if some attempts to take the phone in a bid to stop a call being made.

The features available on these solutions increase in sophistication. GPS enabled technologies are able to provide real time status updates on the worker’s location. Calendars can also be made appointment sensitive, so if a lone worker does not check in on the device, an alert is raised automatically. There is also the ability to send a message to a lone worker, during periods of inactivity, and if the message is not responded to, again an alert is created. Such messages then prompt the back-office procedures which could include trying to establish contact with the worker by telephone or SMS, or even arranging for a colleague who is working in close proximity to make contact. In the most serious situations, the emergency services will be alerted.

Some devices offer functions to record conversations if necessary. This can be particularly beneficial to provide audio recorded evidence of an incident which can confirm someone at the scene of a crime, and therefore can also help gain convictions.

Safety is paramount

Local authorities are committed to minimising risks to lone workers; staff safety is absolutely paramount, and all of these features can help organisations meet their employer health and safety obligations.

These types of technologies are often simple to use and empower lone workers to work more safely, confidently and therefore more efficiently. Staff often feel safer and more at ease in their working environment if using a system that has alarm features built in. While for the employer, they are a low cost way of assisting with lone worker protection.

Once a lone working protection system has been implemented, users must receive comprehensive training in order to understand how and when to operate it to get the most out of the device. It is crucial to ensure that staff are comfortable with using the solution, and are familiar with the processes and procedures of usage. Ongoing user support, refresher training and scenario training is also beneficial. Staff should feel confident that there are robust policies and procedures in place in the advent that they find themselves in a situation that puts their safety at risk. Therefore training should also extend further than simply using the devices to equip staff to deal with risks and provide practical safety advice on how to diffuse difficult situations.

Applied in conjunction with other methods, technology is an essential asset in the protection of lone workers.

David Lancaster is product integration manager at Hytec, part of OLM Group.