Features: July 5th, 2013

How safe are lone working staff? Stefan Olsberg of unified communications specialists Voice Connect (www.voiceconnect.co.uk) looks at the ways of protecting lone workers.

All employers, from owner managed businesses with several staff to large public sector organisations, have a duty of care towards their staff – both morally and legally. The Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) stipulates that employers should ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees whilst they are at work, whilst the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999) state that every employer should assess risks to the health and safety of employees whilst at work. Furthermore, the number of corporate manslaughter cases opened by the Crown Prosecution Service under the Corporate Manslaughter Act (2007) rose by 40% between 2011 and 2012, according to figures published by law firm Pinsent Masons.

A lone worker is generally defined as an employee who will at times be required to work in isolation from their co-workers, or without direct supervision. This can include a diverse range of staff from engineers to community midwives.  In fact, the Office of National Statistics estimates that there are between three to four million lone workers employed in the UK.  Whilst these workers aren’t alone in being exposed to hazards in the workplace, they do routinely experience some risks specific to the nature of their work.

The risks of lone working

The main hazards for lone working staff fall into two broad categories:

Social – the risk posed by other people that the worker comes into contact with (this is mainly the threat of physical or verbal abuse).

Environmental – sometimes referred to as ‘man down’, this is the risk posed by the location of the activity (e.g. at height or underground) and the activity itself, such as working with hazardous materials.

With public sector budgets so tightly squeezed, the concern is that areas such as health and safety could be neglected.  However, there are measures that all employers should take to ensure that they are doing all they can to maximise the safety of their lone workers. In fact, failure to do so could have significant legal implications. For example, an organisation is guilty of corporate manslaughter (or corporate homicide in Scotland) if the way its activities are organised by senior managers has caused a person’s death and amounts to a gross breach of duty of care.

The result can be an unlimited fine or a prison sentence. Fortunately, this is a rare circumstance, but the fact remains that an employing organisation will be judged on whether it has taken the appropriate precautions and has done everything reasonable within its power to prevent the situation from arising. So what should public sector employers be doing to safeguard their most vulnerable staff?

Assessing the risks

Required by the Health and Safety Executive, risk assessments are now accepted practice in places of employment as well as public organisations such as schools and leisure centres. Going through the process rigorously with staff will help to identify many of the potential problems before they arise. However, once a risk has been identified, it must be addressed.

Creating a working policy

Your risk assessment and the strategies devised to address those risks should form a core part of any lone worker policy. A policy needs to be a proactive document that staff have a part in discussing, creating and enforcing. It needs to include practical strategies for tackling the potential hazards faced by lone working staff. These could include the following.

A buddy system where workers are paired up and have responsibility for checking up on each other’s whereabouts and well-being.

Improvements in communication: at the most basic level this might involve having a whiteboard that everyone can see in a common meeting room. Any appointments are written down so that the various out of office locations can be tracked.

Training staff in potential hazards and how they should be dealt with. This should also include conflict management training which is particularly useful for employees at risk of verbal or physical abuse.

Forums for discussion where staff share the issues that they encounter e.g. are there any locations that make them particularly nervous?  Are there activities which pose more risk or families that have caused problems in the past? Identifying any problems and coming up with possible solutions can be really helpful.

Raising the alarm

All these strategies are useful, but they don’t all address the key issue of how to get help should the worst happen. Advances in technology have prompted a rise in the use of monitoring systems and equipment such as panic alarms and trackers. These automated alarm systems have proven to be a viable and effective solution to many of the problems that lone workers can face and are increasingly used by local authorities, housing associations, the health service and utility companies. Uptake has also improved as systems have become more affordable, with minimal outlay and lower running costs.

Systems such as VC LoneWorker (www.voiceconnect.co.uk) which use GPS technology to track location, enable staff to pre-set alarm expiry times using a mobile phone or a landline. If the worker runs into trouble and is unable to cancel it, an alarm will be automatically triggered and a call will be sent to an ARC (Alarm Receiving Centre).  Depending on their previously agreed instructions, the centre can then either call the emergency services immediately or call the employer first, to ask for instructions.

An ARC can monitor calls 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, so staff working around the clock are covered.  This also means that the employing organisation has a robust framework in place, complete with back up. Staff have the reassurance of knowing that should the worst happen, outside help will be automatically triggered without the need for them to take action.  This is particularly important, because if the lone worker is incapacitated, locked up or has had their phone removed, they may not be in a position to call for help.

Of course, false alarms can occur. However, these can be avoided by having procedures in place such as using systems that warn staff if an alert is soon to be triggered. Staff can be trained to use systems effectively, clearing down messages if they suspect that meetings will over run or that they might be held up.

As the employer, it is an organisation’s responsibility to take steps, which show that they understand the risk that lone working staff are exposed to, and that reasonable steps have been taken to protect them.  It’s important to have systems and processes in place, combined with a framework, which will send help and support should things go wrong. Whether you decide to opt for the automated, hi-tech approach or rely on whiteboards and Post-it notes, the key point is to have a robust process that addresses the needs of your organisation and your most vulnerable staff.

Stefan Olsberg is MD of Voice Connect. The company’s VC Lone Worker system is used by local authorities, NHS trusts, utility companies and a range of public and private organisations to provide personal safety and protection for lone working staff who work in dangerous or remote locations. For more information, visit www.voiceconnect.co.uk.