Lone workers make up a significant proportion of the UK workforce and face additional health and safety risks to those working with others. Many of those risks are unique to lone workers and, as with all workers, businesses have a responsibility to protect lone workers from all risks.
Remote working may involve small teams as well as lone workers. Having a colleague present may mitigate some of the risks associated with lone working but, broadly speaking, the issue of working off-site, without the benefits of full supervision, present a unique set of risks that need to be carefully managed.
For the remainder of this post, we’ll use the terms ‘lone worker’ and ‘remote working’ somewhat interchangeably and the reader will easily understand those risks that are specific to lone working and those that more broadly fall under remote working.
Some solutions are already in place to help mitigate these risks but, before going into those solutions, let’s get a full picture of the lone worker population in the UK and the risks they face.
Who Are Lone Workers and Where Do They Work?
As many as 20 percent of people in the UK workforce are lone workers which adds up to around eight million people.
The types of job those people do is incredibly varied ranging from estate agents to night workers at petrol stations, as well as:
- People who drive for a living including couriers, taxi drivers, bus drivers, and lorry drivers
- People who work from home
- Cleaners and security guards who work outside of normal working hours and are often in buildings alone
- Workers in the utility and communications sector who install, maintain, or repair equipment across the country
- Construction workers including tradespeople such as plumbers and electricians
- Agricultural workers including farmers
- Forestry workers
- Nurses and care workers who provide care and medical services to people in their own homes
It is also important to note there are some jobs where the law says individuals cannot work alone. Those carrying out fumigation work are a good example.
The Risks Lone Workers Face
Depending on the work they do, lone workers face the same risks as other types of worker including tripping, falling, being struck by a falling object, hazardous substances, dangerous equipment, confined spaces, and being close to traffic, to name a few.
They also face other risks that are unique to lone working. These include the risk of falling ill or getting injured while on the job. If you work with other people, they can raise the alarm and get you help, whereas a lone worker may not be discovered for a long period of time.
Some lone workers also face the risk of being attacked. In fact, every day, 150 lone workers are either physically or verbally assaulted.
Other unique risks that lone/remote workers face arise from the lack of supervision, both to help perform a task (or identify fatigue or divergence from procedure) and also to fulfil the role of Authorising Person (AP).
Without an AP present, and even if a high risk job already has a properly issued permit to work, what happens when something unexpected occurs and, for example, an isolation is required? What if a new RAMS is needed? How is all of this managed with the safety of the worker(s) paramount and without postponing the job?
Responsibilities You Have as an Employer
In simple terms, the law doesn’t make a distinction between regular workers and lone workers. This means businesses have the same responsibility to identify risks and then take action to mitigate or prevent them. Businesses cannot pass the responsibility for health and safety to the worker and this applies equally to all workers in the supply chain.
In our example above, it is not sufficient for the business to expect the remote worker(s) to decide how to deal with the required isolation. Without a process in place to deal with the unexpected work, the only safe course of action is to postpone the job until an appropriate permit to work is secured.
Lone Worker Responsibilities
Lone workers also have responsibilities in relation to health and safety. Those responsibilities include:
- Taking care of themselves
- Taking care of other people who might be affected by what they do
- Co-operating with their employer or the business they are working for in relation to health and safety
What Should Businesses Do to Protect Lone/Remote Workers
- Conduct risk assessments – risk assessments are essential as they formalise the process of identifying a risk and then developing mitigation measures.
- Use dynamic risk assessments – the risks that many lone workers face change significantly from situation to situation. Therefore, a standard risk assessment will only get you so far. Empowering lone workers to conduct dynamic risk assessments, and giving them sufficient training to do them properly, will go a long way to reducing levels of risk. Wessex Water provides a good case study for dynamic risk assessments.
- Training – following on from the last point, training is extremely important. After all, lone workers don’t have the same access to help from more senior or experienced colleagues. This means they must have sufficient knowledge and experience themselves. That includes the knowledge and experience of how to do their job as well as how to mitigate risk.
- Adapting health and safety procedures for lone workers – all health and safety procedures should be adapted for lone workers. One example is permits to work, a procedure which can have a significant impact on the health and safety performance of an organisation. A paper-based permit to work system is not effective in a remote/lone worker situation. A web-based/mobile permit to work system can, however, accommodate for the lack of an AP at the point of work and prevent unexpected activities causing job postponements while ensuring the safety of workers.
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – businesses should also ensure lone workers have suitable PPE. In some situations, the PPE issued to a lone worker will need to be different to the PPE issued to other workers doing a similar job.
- Reviewing supervision arrangements – depending on the risk assessment, businesses may have to increase the level of supervision for lone workers or move to a buddy system for some tasks and jobs.
- Monitoring – monitoring procedures should also be put in place for lone workers. After all, being a lone worker doesn’t mean you should be completely alone. Some examples of monitoring include the lone worker regularly checking in by phone or by another communication method, as well as supervisors visiting lone workers at their location.
- Implementing new technology – lone worker devices are arguably the single most significant advance for lone worker protection in recent years. These devices can take the place of supervisors, buddies, and colleagues in many situations. This is because lone worker devices have features like man-down alarms, timed alarms where designated people are notified if a lone worker doesn’t check-in within a pre-agreed timeframe, panic buttons, one-way communication channels so a supervisor can hear what is happening at the lone worker’s location, and location tracking. e-surv offers a good case study in this area including the cultural changes they made to improve lone worker safety.
Protecting Lone/Remote Workers
Having employees who work alone or remotely is an essential part of many businesses. However, lone/remote workers present unique health and safety challenges to both the business and the worker who is at risk. It is possible to overcome these challenges, however, with the use of new and innovative technologies and by taking a positive and proactive approach to health and safety.