Local authorities have long supported a diverse range of lone workers; from park wardens and maintenance staff to trading standards officers and social workers. Each of these roles comes complete with its own unique set of risks, and in each case the potential consequences of those risks are amplified simply because the employee is alone.
As the Coronavirus lockdown measures ease, and social distancing remains necessary, many local authorities will find their numbers of lone workers increased. Suddenly, there are many more people isolated from their support network while working from home, while others that would previously have worked in pairs and small teams or only within their local area, may find themselves working alone or in more remote locations - out of sight or earshot of their colleagues and supervisors.
Understanding the issues
The UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has recently provided employers with a timely update to its advice on lone workers, recognising that their circumstances require special consideration. But what are the issues that make this extra attention necessary? The obvious answer is threat to personal safety: those who work alone with the public, particularly in a position of authority, are at increased risk of meeting with aggression, while those who work alone at height, in enclosed areas, or with potentially hazardous materials or equipment are at increased risk of serious injury. Personal injury is of course a potential problem in any working environment, but for lone workers minor injuries can quickly become serious - and serious injuries can become life threatening - simply because there is no one nearby to help.
And the issues of lone worker safety unfortunately go even deeper than this. While some lone workers will value the autonomy of their role, working alone can also have negative psychological effects: lone workers are far more likely to suffer from psychological distress, anxiety and loneliness than their team-working counterparts. Working alone can also be a problem when it comes to making ‘on the spot’ decisions; as having no opportunity to discuss options with co-workers increases the possibility of poor decision making. This can lead to workers placing themselves in unnecessary danger or in situations that can quickly escalate and become unmanageable for one person alone.
Fulfilling your obligations
It’s important to recognise that implementing higher levels of lone working across your workforce doesn’t have to mean putting your workers at increased risk. Lone working is a common practice that is often the most effective and efficient choice - and with the right measures in place, it can also be a safe practice.
However, local authorities are in a unique position when it comes to worker safety: their responsibilities include working closely with the HSE to enforce health and safety regulations in their area, under the National Local Authority Enforcement Code. It is therefore vital to adopt a best practice approach to upholding this same responsibility in relation to their own employees. As in any workplace, local authorities are obliged by law to conduct regular and comprehensive risk assessments. Ensuring these are complete, correct and up to date becomes especially important when circumstances change; whether that’s working patterns, team configurations, duties or location. Risk assessments should also take lone worker status into account, identifying measures that will ensure they are properly ‘trained, monitored and supervised’, and that employers ‘keep in touch with them and respond to any incident’, in line with the new HSE guidance.
Building best practice
Many of the obligations surrounding employee safety can be more easily fulfilled when good communication protocols are in place. Written policies are crucial; they provide clarity and reassurance for employees, and empower them to self-advocate on safety. Alongside this, personal safety devices can prove an invaluable tool for employees and supervisors alike; helping teams to stay in touch, facilitating ‘safe and well’ checks and giving employees a way to call for help quickly and easily should they need to.
Personal safety devices are already considered a crucial element of best practice for many local authority teams. For example, the Early Integrated Support Team at Cheshire West and Chester Council uses them to protect more than 100 employees who are required to carry out lone worker visits, while Suffolk County Council provides devices to highways teams working in hazardous environments. The type of device a council selects will depend on the type of work being carried out, on the location of that work, and on the need for discretion, alongside a range of other factors.
For Cheshire West and Chester an SOS button and connection to the 24 hour alarm receiving centre (ARC) were primary benefits, while Suffolk County Council needed GPS, two-way radio and fall detection capabilities. For some teams, a smart app installed onto existing mobile devices may be enough to provide workers with reassurance and protection. The most important thing is that teams feel confident and connected - and that councils have the right tools to support them as they implement robust risk control measures.
Naz Dossa is CEO of Peoplesafe