The idea that the ‘lone worker’ label should be reserved only for those individuals who work in complete isolation is perhaps the biggest myth surrounding the practice of lone working in the UK. While these individuals are certainly classified as lone workers, there are many other types of worker who fall into the category, too.
For instance, a lone worker can be someone who spends half of their time in the office and half of their time out in the field. The definition also includes individuals who work remotely a few days a week, as well as those employees who make house visits. It even encompasses researchers who occasionally carry out lab work on their own.
When we think of lone workers, we often think of a particular type of job or profession. Many people, for instance, imagine a social worker making home visits or a tradesman working on-site. While lone working is more common in certain fields and industries, the truth is that lone workers come in all shapes and sizes, boast diverse backgrounds and operate in virtually all professional sectors.
A lone worker can be a cleaner in an office block, a delivery driver on their rounds, the foreman closing up the factory, the nurse visiting patients or the university researcher in the lab. In other words, there is no stereotypical lone worker.
Consequently, to generalise about lone workers is to ignore the unique context and circumstances in which employees operate and, as a result, to put them at risk. Lone workers need to be protected with precautionary measures specific to each individual.
A large number of people consider working alone, without supervision, to be illegal. In truth, there is no legislation outlawing the practice. Employers are well within their rights to put individuals to work on their own, as long as they fulfil their Health and Safety obligations when doing so.
The most important piece of legislation covering these obligations is the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. This legislation establishes an employer’s responsibility to protect the health, safety and welfare of employees ‘so far as is reasonably practicable.’
There is a common misconception that the biggest threat to lone workers is that of physical violence committed by a member of the general public. When studies show that around 150 lone workers are physically or verbally attacked on a daily basis, it’s understandable how and why many people come to this conclusion.
However, the risks to lone workers are remarkably diverse and don’t just originate from the general public. Machinery, equipment failure, slips, falls, hazardous substances and sudden illness are all risks that may actually be heightened by the absence of any member of the general public. As a result, it’s important not to narrow your focus too far and to omit everything but threats from the general public.
As we’ve already discussed, it’s very difficult to generalise about lone workers and the threats they face. Since they operate in so many different industries and face such a wide range of threats, it’s important to examine lone workers on a case by case basis.
This means ensuring that employees’ training is tailored to their circumstances and their needs. While general, catch-all lone worker training may have a role to play as an introduction to more specialised training, it is not fit for purpose when used on its own.
To put reasonable safety measures in place for lone workers, it’s first necessary to perform a risk assessment (if you haven’t, take a look at our comprehensive lone worker risk assessment checklist). This should provide you with a comprehensive understanding of the risks and challenges your employees regularly face.
However, in and of itself, a risk assessment is not enough to protect workers. Yes, you now understand what risks they face but you also need to attempt to control and mitigate these risks if you’re to fulfil your obligations to that individual. Actions speak louder than words.
Lone worker solutions are an essential component in a well-considered lone worker safety system. They provide employers with a means of regularly checking in with lone workers, offer peace of mind for both the employer and employee and include a range of security features that truly make a difference when it comes to keeping your staff safe.
However, they are not a self-contained, complete solution. Instead, they need to be introduced into a wider safety system that takes into account supervisory responsibilities, the communication chain, the ability of the organisation to respond to threats and the well-being, comfort and confidence of lone workers.
Unfortunately, the risks faced by lone workers aren’t restricted to working hours. A remarkable 64% of lone workers report facing psychological distress – a figure that dwarfs the equivalent statistic for employees who work in a communal environment.
Consequently, employers must consider the psychological and mental health effects of working alone, as well as the more readily apparent, day-to-day risks. This may mean holding regular meetings with lone workers to check up on their status and emphasising the fact that your door is always open, should an employee need to come and discuss their situation.
In this article, we’ve attempted to demonstrate that lone worker myths are not only pervasive but also potentially damaging. These common misconceptions can prevent you from providing your employees with adequate protections and result in lone workers being exposed to unnecessary risk.