Working alone or in isolation from others can expose employees to greater risks of workplace violence, injury or accident. This responsibility extends to lone workers and ensuring adequate HSE precautions are in place to safeguard them. It’s currently estimated that there are between 7 and 9 million lone workers in the UK, which means lone worker safety must be approached methodically and proactively by employers in numerous sectors.
As an employer, it is your legal duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of your workers, regardless of where they are at any given time. If they work unsupervised for extended periods where they may be off-site and not within close distance, it pays off to ensure that you are taking sufficient steps to mitigate their lone working risks and ensure they are as safe as possible.
This article explores the key considerations for employers to mitigate the risks facing their lone workers.
Understanding the Hazards
Lone workers face unique hazards that require specific control measures by their employers.
Some of the key dangers facing lone workers include:
- Violence or assault: Lone workers can be more vulnerable to aggressive behaviour from customers, clients, trespassers or even seemingly innocuous people nearby. Those working remotely or in isolation lack colleagues who could potentially intervene or assist. HSE data shows alarming numbers of UK work-related fatal injuries in 2022/23 were caused by assault or violent incidents.
- Accidents and injuries: Without co-workers present, lone workers may not receive immediate help if they have an accident or injury. Minor incidents can escalate if first aid or emergency services are not promptly contacted. Personal injury claims can also rise quickly if employees are not sufficiently protected, and you as the employer could be liable in certain situations.
- Health emergencies: Medical conditions such as seizures or heart attacks can become critical if lone workers do not get rapid medical attention. Remote locations make it harder and more time-consuming to receive medical help, adding further complications.
- Lack of supervision: Employers have a reduced ability to monitor and supervise lone workers without sufficient equipment and integrated systems of communication. Often this makes it harder to ensure safe practices are followed consistently when employees and management are not in direct contact.
Risk Assessment is Vital
Carrying out a thorough risk assessment is a legal requirement and the foundation of effectively managing the risks that face lone workers. The HSE has outlined a template for risk assessments to help employers curate their own.
The most crucial steps will involve:
- Consulting with relevant workers of all experience levels to understand potential hazards they face.
- Evaluating the likelihood and severity of possible harm.
- Consider the environment, nature of tasks, qualifications and health of workers.
- Identifying any vulnerable workers who may be at greater risk e.g. young workers, pregnant women, and those with pre-existing medical conditions.
- Documenting your findings and outlining the preventative and protective measures required to mitigate risks.
- Regularly reviewing and updating the risk assessments, such as when work activities or locations change.
Safeguarding Lone Workers on the Road
Road accidents are a leading cause of fatalities and lost working days. Lone workers driving for work purposes are especially vulnerable to risks on the road. Therefore, if you deploy vehicle fleets or have multiple lone workers occupying the roads every day, it’s vital that you:
- Assess driving routes for risk factors like busy roads, poor lighting and weather conditions. Avoid higher-risk routes where possible.
- Ensure company vehicles receive regular maintenance checks and are fitted with safety features like airbags and ABS brakes.
- Ban phone calls or app usage while driving. Provide hands-free kits if workers need to take calls.
- Train workers on defensive driving skills, accident procedures and driving safely in bad weather.
- Implement vehicle tracking to monitor driver safety and allow prompt emergency response.
Ongoing Communication and Monitoring
Maintaining contact with lone workers – without it becoming invasive or distracting – provides vital reassurance and the ability to escalate emergencies. Options include:
- Regular scheduled check-in calls or messages to confirm safety
- Smartphone apps that enable panic alerts if in distress.
- Lone worker safety devices with ‘man down’ alarms, GPS tracking and contact options
- CCTV in higher-risk public areas like car parks or shipping yards
- Online employee logging systems to monitor start and finish times
Determine suitable systems based on your risk assessment findings. Protocols for raising alerts or contacting emergency services should also be established.
Emergency Response Planning
Ensure effective procedures are in place for responding to incidents if and when they occur. Key elements to outline include:
- Who should lone workers contact in case of health emergencies, vehicle breakdowns, unwarranted confrontations, aggressive behaviour, and so on? Provide after-hours numbers for relevant emergency contacts.
- How will operations staff confirm an emergency and arrange assistance as needed?
- When should emergency services be contacted? Ensure workers have numbers pre-programmed and readily available.
- How and when will you follow up with the families of affected workers?
- Steps for investigating incidents, mitigating future occurrences and providing post-trauma support if needed.
It’s also prudent to conduct practice drills to test the effectiveness of your emergency plans.
Training and Policies
Provide adequate training to equip lone workers with invaluable knowledge and essential skills to minimise risks. You can find help from accredited training providers that can tailor programmes to suit your unique requirements, nature of work, and team size and experience levels.
Common types of workplace training programmes can include:
- Situational awareness – identify threats and stay alert
- Conflict management and de-escalation techniques for diffusing tension
- Self-defence tactics if danger is imminent
- Emergency first aid – manage injuries until help arrives
- Safety device operation – usage of alarms, apps and other tools provided.
Additionally, develop clear policies that are regularly communicated on topics like:
- Securing worksites and vehicles
- Seeking help for dangerous jobs
- Steps for safe remote working or driving
- Knowing when to withdraw and abandon an unsafe situation
Of course, it’s imperative that workers follow the expected protocols to the letter, and if they are not, you are to take prompt action. While it’s likely that most accidents will be caused by external factors, make sure that you have processes in place for deviation or negligent behaviour.
Insurance and Legal Obligations
Despite precautions, incidents can still occur. Have adequate employers’ liability insurance in place to cover compensation claims from injured lone workers. Understand your legal duties – if found negligent in protecting workers, individuals could pursue a workplace injury claim and you may be fined for breaching health and safety laws.
By proactively identifying and controlling risks, and providing training, emergency backup and insurance coverage, employers can fulfil their responsibilities in safeguarding more vulnerable lone workers. Stay vigilant and regularly review procedures to enable early action on any emerging hazards or concerns raised.