Risks of working alone

29th of November 2012
Risks of working alone

David Foster of property and people protection specialist Sitex Orbis explains the risks facing those who work alone, the responsibilities of employers and how they can support and protect their staff.

In a world where everyone seems to be connected 24/7, it’s easy to forget many people work alone. Not isolated behind a computer screen and wearing headphones but actually on their own. They may have a mobile phone but if they need help it could be minutes or hours away.

Contracting trends and technological innovation have made it more cost-effective for one person to do what two or more used to. Increased outsourcing means that many people are part of a peripatetic workforce. They may be working at a client site, there may be other people around some of the time but they are not necessarily seen as part of the same community.

Multiskilling, particularly the end of the divide between mechanical and electrical skills, has also driven the trend towards 'one-man' maintenance and repair. Mobile communications, sat nav, hand-held devices with access to technical information and job scheduling make it easier do a job solo.

So who are these lone workers?  Many are public sector workers dealing with the public. From nurses to environmental health inspectors, from traffic wardens to postal workers. They are often in riskier situations than their office-based counterparts.

Lone working is very common in the support services sector. Maintenance workers, security guards, pest control experts and of course cleaners - they all spend part of their working lives alone.

Cleaners work alone

Although cleaners often work in teams many also work alone. Most cleaning is done outside normal working hours, adding to the isolation. A cleaner may enter a building while it is still busy, but may be left alone at the end of their shift. Cleaners tend to start early or finish late at night and are therefore at risk on their journey to and from work.

In many cases cleaners have the same access to buildings as staff, in fact they may have more knowledge of the premises security systems including keys and alarm codes. This makes them vulnerable to criminals planning theft or vandalism.

Cleaners will often be working in environments, such as hospitals, where they may come into contact with members of the public who could pose a risk through disorientation or simply aggressive behaviour. In hospitals and laboratories, as well as some industrial sites, they may also be working in proximity to potentially hazardous chemicals or substances.

Housekeeping staff in hotels can also find themselves alone in a room with a guest – a situation that can have serious consequences for both parties.

There is no common definition of a lone worker across Europe. In the UK, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says "lone workers are those who work by themselves without close or direct supervision". Croner’s Health and Safety offers a wider definition. A lone worker is one "whose activities involve a large percentage of their working time operating in situations without the
benefit of interaction with other workers or without supervision".

What’s clear is that the numbers are increasing every year. According to the British Security Industry Association, more than six million people in the UK work either in isolation or without direct supervision, often in places or circumstances that put them at potential risk.

There were an estimated 654,000 incidents of violence at work according to the 2010/11 British Crime Survey, comprising 341,000 assaults and 313,000 threats. In 2010/11 171 people were killed in the course of their work. Of course not all the incidents involved lone working but isolation can increase the risk.

The three main risks are: violence and aggression, usually from members of the public; occupational risks (such as slips, trips, falls, electrocution); and personal wellbeing risks, including health issues caused by being in stressful situations.

The risks are different for each group of workers. Public sector staff, transport staff and retail workers face threats of abuse or violence from members of the public (more than one in three working alone in the community have been assaulted or harassed in the last two years, according to research from the Royal College of Nursing).

Other employees such as shop workers, security staff or warehouse workers might be at risk of robbery; an engineer, construction worker or maintenance staff are at risk of an accident while working alone.

The law requires employers and others to think about and deal with any health and safety risks before people should be allowed to work alone. The general duty of employers to maintain safe working arrangements under the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act applies. Additionally, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to assess and counter health and safety risks before allowing staff to work alone.

The HSE advises employers that they have a legal duty to notify and consult with safety representatives about the jobs of employees who work alone. These responsibilities cannot be transferred to any other person, including those people who work alone. It is the employer’s duty to assess risks to lone workers and take steps to avoid or control risks where necessary.

Many organisations simply ignore the problem and risks completely – often with disastrous consequences. A major lift company had no lone worker support in place when a lift engineer working alone in a lift shaft, fell, and later died. He wasn’t found for eight hours.

A new offence of corporate manslaughter was created by the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, which came into force in April 2008. For the first time, companies and organisations can be found guilty of corporate manslaughter as a result of serious management failures resulting in a gross breach of a duty of care.

The first prosecution was brought against a surveying company after a geologist, working alone, was killed when a deep trench collapsed. The company was fined almost 500,000 euros. Since then a storage product manufacturer has been fined almost 600,000 euros for the corporate manslaughter of one of its employees who died when he fell through a roof at one of the company’s factories. There are 50 corporate manslaughter cases currently under review.

Support and protection

How can organisations meet their obligations and protect their workers? Perhaps the first option is to review working patterns. It may be possible to avoid situations where staff work alone. For example, rather than allocate cleaners to different rooms or floors of a building, they could work as a team across the facility.

Some firms have introduced daytime cleaning, which as well as ensuring cleaning staff are not working in isolation, encourages the building’s occupants to appreciate the service and those who provide it.

Manage safety

Traditionally organisations employing lone workers have managed their safety in two ways: white board or buddy systems. A white board placed in a prominent position in the office records the names, locations, schedule and mobile numbers of all lone workers. The lone worker checks back into the office and has their whereabouts updated on the board so that should an incident occur, the organisation knows their whereabouts.

The downside is that the white board may only be monitored in office hours (whereas the lone worker may work unsocial hours) and if the person responsible for managing the board is off sick, on holiday or just snowed under, it may get forgotten about.

A buddy system is the equivalent of telling your friend where you’re going to meet a new date. Lone workers tell another colleague where they will be and agree to phone back within a set period of time. Again they may forget to phone back, and if they do call in an emergency situation, their colleague may not be trained to, or have the equipment or technology, to support them.

Communications technology offers new options. For low to medium risk lone workers, a dedicated speed dial set up on a standard mobile phone linking through to an alarm response centre will provide an increased level of safety. For lone workers who routinely face higher levels of risk, enhanced services can be combined with dedicated devices or a smart phone app that can include the ability to set up automatic welfare checks giving the user greater flexibility and protection.

Specialist devices have dedicated emergency keys, or specialist safety sensors, which detect falls, impacts, extended lack of movement or loss of vertical position, and raise the red alarm even if the worker can’t press any buttons. They may also be ruggedised and so work in all sorts of challenging environments and under the harshest elements.

The two relevant industry standards for lone worker protection in the UK are British Standards BS8484 and  BS5979. BS8484 covers  the quality and suitability of key components used for the protection of lone workers, including devices, the service provider, the monitoring and the response are required for the delivery of a robust and effective lone worker solution. Police throughout England, Wales and NI currently require BS8484 in order to guarantee a response.

Any communications technology is only as good as the centre monitoring and responding to calls. BS5979 covers the management and operation of Alarm Receiving Centres (ARC). BS5979 has two categories (CATI and CATII). An ARC operating to BS5979 CATII, such as that run by SitexOrbis, provides more physical security to cater for high security monitoring applications.

The importance of effective lone working support was demonstrated last year when a female traffic warden for Bristol City Council was subjected to a tirade of abuse and threats while issuing a parking notice to a driver who had parked illegally in a disabled bay near the city centre.

She pressed the dedicated panic button on her ruggedised mobile phone, all audio was recorded and she was discreetly connected through to the SitexOrbis alarm receiving centre (BS5979 Cat II) which is staffed 24/7 by fully trained operatives.

Employees trained

As is the standard procedure, the operator remained on the line and began to initiate the pre-agreed emergency response procedure set by Bristol City Council. The man was later arrested and found to be in possession of several knives. The quality of the audio captured between the phone and the digital recorders was commended by the police who took steps to secure a conviction. The council was also able to track the incident in real time using self-service web portal, which also provides a full audit trail.

The HSE advises that lone workers should be capable of responding correctly to emergencies. Risk assessment should identify foreseeable events. Emergency procedures should be established and employees trained in them.

Information regarding a premises’ emergency procedures and danger areas should be given to lone workers. They should have access to adequate first-aid facilities, and mobile workers should carry a first-aid kit suitable for treating minor injuries. Occasionally risk assessment may indicate that lone workers need first aid-training.

All employers have a duty of care to their staff. Supporting those who often work alone will not only protect them, it may just protect your reputation and business.

Further information: the Health and Safety Executive has produced a guide for those working alone and those employing or managing lone workers. Access it at www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg73.pdf



Our Partners

  • ISSA Interclean
  • EFCI
  • EU-nited