As lone working becomes more widespread, what are the biggest risks to those working alone and what should employers consider when choosing a lone worker safety solution?
Lone working is part and parcel of many job roles; indeed, at some point most people will have experienced working alone, even if only on occasion. In the majority of cases this is absolutely fine, but there are a number of individuals who work in conditions which expose them to personal danger from work-related violence or abuse, accidents or serious injury. Due to the very fact that these employees are on their own puts them at greater risk should the worst happen.
Over the past few years, lone worker protection providers such as Skyguard have seen huge demand for their safety services, which utilise a range of personal alarms and specialist apps linked to a 24/7 monitoring centre. James Murray, Chief Executive of Skyguard, says: “Employers are fast becoming much more savvy about lone working and are realising the benefits of investing in personal safety devices for their staff.”
Skyguard’s lone worker safety devices and apps offer discreet protection that allow a user to get help quickly – often faster than dialling 999. The service is used across the country by both public and private sector clients, including councils, NHS trusts, major banks and high street retailers, with new customers signing up daily.
What is a lone worker?
The UK has an estimated 6 million lone workers, representing approximately 20 per cent of the nation’s workforce. Following the Health and Safety Executive’s guidelines, this is defined as any employee who “works by themselves without close or direct supervision”. This encapsulates not only those who are completely isolated from others, but also any staff member who spends time working on their own, perhaps in an office or travelling between meetings.
Lone working is more common than you think
When most people think of lone workers, a number of roles will spring to mind from district nurses out and about visiting their patients in the community to long-distance lorry drivers zigzagging the country. However, many common everyday job roles involve lone working to some extent including social workers, shopkeepers, cleaners, engineers, security guards, hotel receptionists, estate agents and more.
There are also some that are less obvious: for example, salespeople regularly meet with clients and attend events without supervision. In fact, if you have ever stayed late in an office after hours, locked up at the end of the day or attended a business trip by yourself, this could be considered lone working. Even those working on a large, busy site such as a factory or warehouse could still find themselves in situations where this applies.
Many more of us could find lone working creeping into our day to day roles as organisations are looking to improve their efficiency and cut costs where possible, resulting in a reduction of staff numbers. There is an increasing trend for employers reassigning a single person to a role that previously would have been carried out with others. Evidence of this can be seen on the railways where bosses are introducing driver-only trains, without the presence of guards. A fall in police numbers has also led to the traditional image of ‘bobbies on the beat’ often now being reduced to just a single officer on patrol.
Technology also plays a part: in our increasingly busy world many employees are opting to work remotely, as it allows them to work from home or on the move which is invaluable in some roles.
What are the main risks associated with working alone?
James Murray explains: “Although lone working does not necessarily increase the risk to an employee, the consequences if something goes wrong can be far worse, as when there’s no one else around its harder or even impossible for an individual to get help.”
Each job role will have its own specific risks, but the most common dangers to lone worker safety include physical violence or verbal abuse, which is most prevalent with public-facing roles – for example paramedics, security guards, ticket inspectors or traffic wardens. Faced with difficult situations these people regularly find themselves on the receiving end of abusive or threatening behaviour from the public.
There are also a number of task-based risks where the nature of a particular role can present danger. Examples include operating heavy machinery in a factory, driving large vehicles, working at height on a building site or with dangerous chemicals in a laboratory.
Where an employee works can be a hazard in itself. Some environments expose workers to extreme temperatures or other dangers. For some it can be that they are based in a remote location without mobile coverage. This can be a serious issue as employees may be far away from others and unable to get assistance should they suffer an emergency or fall ill suddenly.
When it comes to protecting staff, James Murray says: “It’s vital that any solution is flexible and able to adapt to the variety of risks that employees may encounter.”
Skyguard is able to tailor its service to suit client’s unique requirements, which is just one of the benefits the company has as the UK’s only wholly owned lone worker safety provider, which is involved in developing its own technologies and maintains its own purpose-built Incident Management Centre on site.
Highlighting the dangers
One of the cases commonly used to highlight the risks to lone worker safety is the tragic story of Suzy Lamplugh. Suzy was an estate agent in South London who disappeared whilst attending an appointment. To this day the case remains unsolved, although it is suspected that she was attacked and murdered by a man who’d arranged to view a property, known as ‘Mr Kipper’. Her colleagues only realised she was missing hours later when she failed to return to the office.
Similarly, in 2006, social worker Ashleigh Ewing was stabbed during a routine visit to a patient, who suffered from severe mental health problems. Afterwards, some questioned if it was right to send her alone under such dangerous circumstances. Indeed, the lessons learned from this incident show that sometimes lone working is not appropriate in high-risk scenarios.
Skyguard’s controllers have dealt with a wide variety of incidents which show just how critical lone worker safety provision can be. As James Murray says: “We’ve had everything from medical emergencies and accidents, to people being attacked and even held hostage.”
Common incidents include housing officers getting into difficulty when evicting tenants and hotel workers dealing with threatening behaviour from guests under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Are threats to lone worker safety increasing?
Against a backdrop of rising violent crime and police cuts it could be suggested that the threat towards certain workers has increased. We live in uncertain times with frequent news reports of knife crime, violent assaults and the threat of terrorism. Key public sectors such as the NHS have seen abuse towards staff rising year on year, with one in seven employees being subjected to threatening behaviour in the past year alone.
A growing number of workers in the so called “gig economy”, many of whom spend much of their time working alone, have also become a target. Drivers for popular takeaway delivery services have suffered violent attacks from criminals attempting to steal the cash they carry and sometimes even their vehicles. The problem has become so bad that some areas have become no-go, with drivers refusing to deliver for fear of being attacked. Sadly, these are just a couple of examples showing a concerning trend that paints a worrying picture for staff and employers alike.
Why safeguarding employees is a necessity
Aside from the moral obligation that organisations have to their workers, legally employers have a duty of care to protect their staff from unnecessary risk. There are in fact several laws specifically to safeguard workers, listed below:
- The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974;
- The Health & Safety Offences Act 2008;
- The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999; and
- The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.
These are only the general laws affecting organisations – in addition, there are whole host of supplementary health and safety regulations which apply to specific industries, workplace environments and types of job activity.
If an employee suffers harm at work as a consequence of doing their job and it is proven that the systems to protect them are not fit for purpose, their employer could be found to be in breach of numerous pieces of legislation. In the event of a fatality, companies convicted of corporate manslaughter could face a fine of up to £20 million (€23.2 million), the effects of which can be financially crippling; along with the irreversible damage done to their reputation.
What can employers do to make working alone safer?
Risks within the working environment must be controlled with sufficient policies and procedures put in place to prevent harm. Employers should carry out a lone worker safety risk assessment to identify the hazards all workers may encounter and evaluate the level of severity. Appropriate measures to mitigate these risks can then be set out and communicated to staff.
Risk assessments are a legal requirement and if an organisation has five or more employees, this must be formally written down. Managing risk is an ongoing process and it is recommended that organisations review their risk assessments on an annual basis, or more regularly if there are changes in circumstance that could affect the amount of risk.
In addition to risk assessments, a lone worker policy will be required if there are any employees within an organisation that work alone, even if this is only on an occasional basis. An effective policy should look at the specific risks of lone working and define who is considered to be a lone worker. Responsibilities should be identified and guidance given about where employees can gain help and support.
Having the correct procedures in place is only the start. Employees themselves need to be fully aware of what is expected of them and encouraged to be vigilant and take responsibility for their own safety by reporting issues and any near-miss incidents promptly.
Utilising technology to protect lone worker safety
The greatest difficulty that lone workers potentially have is getting help in an emergency scenario, as there may be no one else who can alert others on their behalf if they are unable to do so themselves.
Employers are realising that equipping staff with a fast and effective way of getting assistance is no longer just an option. This is one of the reasons that the lone worker safety market has experienced such significant growth in recent times.
James Murray comments: “Over the past few years in particular we’ve seen a rapid growth in the number of organisations recognising the importance of protecting their workforce and seeking new technology to help them do this.”
Skyguard is part of Send For Help Group, the world’s largest provider of lone worker safety services, which has become one of the fastest growing businesses in Europe, gaining a whole host of accolades including being listed in The Sunday Times’ Fast Track 100 for three years running.
One of the biggest selling points is the products themselves, which the company develops itself in-house. Devices are pocket-sized so they can be easily carried, with some no bigger than a standard USB stick. They can be easily activated at the press of a button allowing users to communicate directly with a specially trained controller in Skyguard’s Incident Management Centre who will listen, respond and send for the emergency services or alert a designated contact.
If an alarm is raised, controllers will already know a user’s name and personal details, saving vital time in an emergency. Users can also be traced quickly using the device’s GPS so their whereabouts can be passed on to rescue services. Voice messages with additional information can also be recorded with details of an appointment, specifying the exact floor and flat number in a block which helps pinpoint a user’s exact location.
Skyguard is able to bypass the 999 system using Unique Reference Numbers (URNs) which provide a direct link to police control rooms, saving vital minutes.
In some situations it may not be possible for a user to activate the device themselves, for instance if they become incapacitated due to a fall. Devices with a “mandown” fall alarm are able to detect impact and automatically raise the alarm if the user fails to move. The reassurance this gives proves invaluable for those who spend time working at height or in remote areas who could be at greater risk and may not be found for an extended period of time should they have an accident.
Similar functionalities as those outlined have been incorporated into smartphone applications, which in some cases may be preferred to a standalone device. There are also specially adapted lone worker safety devices for those that work in hazardous areas that may require a more robust solution or one that utilises satellite technology to function in areas beyond the reach of mobile coverage.
As the industry deals with protecting staff in potentially life-threatening situations, standards are crucial for lone worker safety providers. Accreditations such as BS 8484 and BS 5979 are benchmarks that set the standard that safety services must meet. Skyguard, which is involved in developing standards within the industry, is certified to BS 8484:2016 and BS 5979 Category 2 as well as being approved by the Police’s Secured by Design scheme. These are key quality indicators that those who are procuring lone worker safety services should search for.
Choosing an appropriate lone worker safety solution
It is important for employers to look at the specifics when deciding upon the best protection methods and consider the following key questions:
- Whom are they looking to protect?
- What situations are they likely to be in?
- Where are they going to be working?
- When are employees working alone?
Solutions should be matched to each lone working scenario, as the examples below demonstrate:
- Public facing staff such as receptionists, retail workers and community nurses – these need a compact personal alarm that can be easily activated at their discretion without another party knowing. Sound recording capabilities may also be required for evidential purposes;
- Scaffolders or maintenance workers – working from height may require a fall alarm that can detect a sudden impact and automatically activate if a period of inactivity follows;
- Physical roles such as construction or utility work – a handsfree wearable device that doesn’t obstruct their ability to carry out their job may be most appropriate; and
- Attending appointments off site – the ability to set a timer that can alert others if a meeting inexplicably overruns would be recommended.
The potential locations covered are as diverse as lone working itself. For example, staff may be based at:
- A single location which has limited contact with others or across several areas – workers may require several devices or perhaps a mobile app solution for those attending meetings who would prefer not to carry a separate device;
- Remote places that have no signal – a lone worker safety solution must be able to function in areas with little or no mobile coverage;
- Apartment blocks or large buildings – if an incident occurs, knowing the exact location can save vital time. Having the ability to record a voice memo (available to controllers if an alarm is raised) giving the floor and flat number enables emergency services to pinpoint where a user is; and
- Hazardous environments – encountering combustibles, heat, dust, water and chemicals will require a robust device that can withstand more extreme conditions.
Lone working can equally be applied to those working during the day as well as out of hours and nightshift workers. If an organisation is operating 24/7 it is important to choose a solution that allows monitoring around the clock. Disaster can occur at any time, so ideally having an alarm receiving centre with specially trained controllers on hand at all times is the best approach to ensure someone will be ready to help if staff need assistance.
As Skyguard’s James Murray puts it: “Our approach is simple but effective. You can’t put a price on the peace of mind it brings individuals in times of need just knowing that there is someone there, ready to listen and help them.”
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