The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines a lone worker as
‘those who work by themselves without close or direct supervision.’
This doesn’t necessarily mean that they work in isolation, but that they do not work in a team or with a manager. For instance, an employee could be surrounded by the general public all day, but will still be considered a lone worker if they’re not operating together with colleagues or under supervision.
However, this definition results in several grey areas that need to be carefully considered. Many employees who work in small teams are exposed to the same risks faced by lone workers. For instance, small teams of waste collectors have to deal with similar challenges, including the threat of physical or verbal abuse or injury and altercations with the public.
Not all tasks are suitable for lone workers. Some work simply requires more than one employee to carry out safely, securely and to the required standard. Establishing whether a task can be carried out by a single employee is the first step in any risk assessment as it determines how you approach the rest of the process. There are several considerations to take into account.
- Consult with existing lone workers as to the nature of their role and whether they feel as though they receive adequate protection and support
- Examine all situations in which employees work alone or in small teams – even if these situations only constitute a small part of the employees’ overall work
- Look to canvas and consult with staff to see whether there are activities that have been missed but should be classified as lone worker tasks
- Just because a task has historically been carried out by a lone worker does not mean it’s necessarily suitable for a single individual to perform. To ensure lone worker safety, employers should also reassess all existing lone worker arrangements
Having identified those employees who are defined as lone workers, managers must carry out thorough risk assessments and implement appropriate safety policies. In most cases, the risks to a lone worker are very different to those working under supervision or in numbers. This needs to be taken into consideration when carrying out the risk assessment.
Employers must be aware of a variety of factors that are unique to the circumstances faced by lone workers. These include;
- Equipment – is there any equipment that a single employee may have difficulty handling or operating on their own? Would the lone worker be in danger if equipment failed?
- Emergency exit – in case of an emergency (eg. fire), does the lone worker have a suitable emergency exit? Will the emergency exit and protocols be affected by the employee working independently (if the rest of the premises is locked up, for example)?
- Hazardous materials – is the lone worker interacting with any hazardous substances, such as chemicals or highly flammable materials? If so, how does this affect their safety?
- Personal safety concerns – is the lone worker put into any potentially dangerous situations by which their safety is threatened by the actions of other individuals who may exhibit coercive, violent or aggressive behaviour?
- Communication – is there a clear channel of communication for lone workers looking to raise concerns or escalate problems? If the employee does not speak English as a first language, are they comfortable in communicating potential issues?
While relevant lone worker safety concerns will differ from job to job and between industries, those listed above provide a basic framework from which a comprehensive risk assessment can be designed. Throughout this process, it’s vital that employers work and consult closely with employees to ensure they fully understand the conditions particular to each role.
Training plays an important role in preparing employees for independent and unsupervised work. Whereas individuals operating in a shared workspace can look to more experienced team members for advice and assistance, lone workers do not have this privilege. Consequently, they need to be made aware of potential risks and given the tools and expertise to deal with them confidently.
For lone workers, this will likely include the following;
- De-escalation training – how to de-escalate conflict with members of the public and act in a way that best protects their safety
- First aid training – employees who work in potentially dangerous environments can be provided with first aid training to ensure that adequate medical assistance can be administered immediately if required
- Self-defence training – though not always necessary, some lone workers may feel more secure if provided self-defence training. This can also be a good way to bring lone workers together and combat the isolation that many experience
- Context-specific procedures – training should be provided for any and all context-specific procedures that lone workers are expected to understand. These are procedures that are unique to the workplace in which the employee operates. For instance, a petrol station attendant should be trained on what to do in case of a robbery
Additional training can assist lone workers by providing them with solutions to common problems, giving them the confidence to respond to issues in a calm and cool-headed manner, and by setting clear boundaries.
This last point is particularly important, as an employer should always delineate well-defined limitations to the work a lone worker can and cannot perform. This can drastically reduce the likelihood of a workplace incident by eliminating the grey area in which many accidents occur and making it clear as to when a lone worker should request guidance or assistance.
Consequently, all risk assessments should include;
- Considerations of where a specific employee’s responsibilities begin and end
- When an employee should escalate a concern or issue to a supervisor, who that supervisor is and how they can be contacted
- What the procedures are for reporting an incident or seeking guidance
In situations where there is deemed to be some risk to a lone worker, measures should be taken to ensure they are supervised or monitored. This can take many forms but should be directly proportional to the level of risk faced by a lone worker. The higher the risk, the closer the supervision or monitoring needs to be.
While supervision generally involves the presence of an experienced and knowledgeable employee to oversee the work, monitoring can mean a variety of things. In many cases, it will mean integrating new technologies into the workplace. There are numerous examples of lone worker solutions being deployed in contemporary workplaces.
- Following an increase in abusive and threatening behaviour towards recycling workers on their rounds, Oxfordshire County Council introduced body cameras for their workers. Not only does this ensure all incidents are recorded so action may be taken at a later date, but the cameras also act as a powerful deterrent against such behaviour
- Apps and digital systems, like Inform’s lone worker solutions, provide lone workers with a 24/7 monitoring system that offers support in a number of different ways. By introducing such technology, lone workers are able to access immediate assistance if there is an incident, record their movements, schedule safety calls, and report problems
- Though technology has an important role to play in ensuring lone worker safety, monitoring safety levels, and raising the alarm, human actors do too. A monitoring system could also involve regular check-ups on a lone worker by a supervisor, routine communications with a supervisor, or a requirement that lone workers ‘check-out’ at the end of their shift or upon returning home
Lone workers should be made aware of all the established emergency procedures relevant to their role. This means that your risk assessment will need to examine the possible emergency situations a lone worker could find themselves in and how adequate protections and procedures can be put in place to safeguard employees.
Detailed information should be provided as to what to do in case of;
Steps should also be taken to ensure that any necessary safety equipment is accessible and regularly tested. Employers have a legal Duty of Care towards their employees, and rigorous safety measures and procedures go some way to fulfilling that obligation.
Lone workers aren’t just at risk from other people, machinery, or equipment – operating alone can also have a drastic impact on stress levels and an individual’s mental health.
Being isolated from colleagues and taking on greater responsibility can result in work-related distress that affects an employee’s personal and professional life. In fact, statistics show that around 64% of lone workers suffer from psychological distress, a marked increase on the figure associated with employees who work in a team environment.
With this in mind, employers should incorporate personal welfare checks into any risk assessment. This can be achieved in the following ways.
- Ensuring you understand the challenges lone workers face by talking with them and allowing them to air concerns or frustrations
- Scheduling regular check-ins with lone workers
- Looking at ways to better integrate lone workers into a larger team, eg. by bringing them into the office more often, planning social events, or encouraging team activities
- Providing the individual responsible for lone workers with guidance on what to look out for in regards to lone worker stress and mental health
For more information on this often-overlooked element of lone worker safety, you can check out our article on lone worker welfare.
Clearly, not all lone workers are alike. As well as operating in different environments and facing distinct challenges, there may be personal characteristics that require additional consideration. Employees who are particularly young, inexperienced, pregnant or disabled may face challenges that other lone workers do not. Your risk assessment should take these factors into consideration.
A risk assessment is a comprehensive document that serves three key functions;
- Allows you to identify risks and implement appropriate safety procedures and processes
- Ensures you’re able to provide employees with accurate information as to the risks they face and how to mitigate them
- Demonstrates that you’ve fulfilled your obligations as the individual/organisation responsible for lone worker safety
Consequently, it’s essential that the findings you make during your risk assessment are condensed into a single document that provides comprehensive details on what you’ve examined and what measures you’ve taken to ensure lone worker safety. When compiling this documentation, it may be helpful to keep the following advice in mind.
- Ensure the report is written in clear and concise English. Avoid technical jargon wherever possible and make the language accessible to all
- Digitalise the report and ensure it’s available and easy to find for all employees
- Use a simple system to rank the level of risk associated with certain tasks. For instance, a traffic light system will add a visual element to the assessment that makes it easier to use
- Provide information as to why the risk assessment has been carried out and explain the repercussions (for both employer and employee) of not following the assessment’s findings or suggestions
While the precise measures taken to protect lone workers will vary from role to role, it’s vital that employers go the extra mile and carefully consider safety measures above and beyond those expected in a typical shared workspace. This means consulting with those currently in the role, carrying out an exhaustive risk assessment, and understanding the specific circumstances in which each lone worker operates. Solutions to safety issues will differ drastically depending on the business, but adequate safety, supervisory and monitoring measures must be implemented if an employer is to meet their legal obligation to employees.
Have a question or want further information on improving lone worker health and safety? Our expert team have been providing lone worker solutions for over 25 years. Call us on 01344 595800 or drop us a line.
NB: this article was originally published in April 2018, but has been updated to provide the latest information