2020: the year of the lone worker? By Nicole Vazquez

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In March 2020 the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) released its updated guidance on ‘Protecting Lone Workers’ and it couldn’t have been timelier. With the global pandemic and the abrupt changes to the way in which many people work creating arguably more lone workers than ever before, organisations need as much guidance and support as they can get.

Managing lone working risks has been on the agenda for most organisations for many years. However, with other business pressures, confusion about; who would be classed as a lone worker; how to risk assess adequately and best practice with regards to control measures, for many it has often been put on the back burner.

In their revised guidance, the HSE has been very clear in defining lone working, they provide much needed guidance on risks assessing and clearly set out responsibilities and considerations for managing the risks.

Who is a Lone Worker?

The simple definition has not changed ‘someone who works by themselves without close or direct supervision’. But what exactly does that mean in COVID-19 times?

The obvious place to start is with working from home. According to the Office for National Statistics only 5% of the UK labour force worked mainly from home in 2019. This number has multiplied massively during the lockdown and as this article is being written, there is talk from the Government and many large companies that this will become the norm for the foreseeable future. 

There have been discussions on social media sites and in professional forums as to whether people working from home should be classed as lone workers. According to the HSE the answer is simple – Yes! For the first time in their guidance they have included homeworkers in their example list. Personally, I think this is a smart move. This group of people have often been forgotten when it comes to risk management. Employers often assume that because you are in your own home, that a. you are safe and b. it’s not their responsibility. To understand why neither of those statements sit comfortably we need to explore the risks a little further.

COVID-19 may be the driver as to why people are working from home, but keeping them safe from the virus does not equal keeping them safe. There are still the more traditional health and safety risks, alongside the mental health and wellbeing issues that need to be addressed.

Many people’s home environments are not ideal for home working. How many of us do not have the luxury of a workstation set-up at home that is comfortable, well-lit and ergonomically sound? Poor posture, sitting position and screen set-up can lead to short and long-term muscular skeletal problems. Add to that, longer working hours, lack of activity and regular breaks (due to pressure to be ‘on’ all the time and fear of being accused of slacking maybe?) and people’s physical wellbeing can be damaged.  Not everyone has a space they can dedicate to work and this can lead to blurred boundaries (home-work balance), distractions, frustration and increased stress levels.

For our staff members that live in difficult domestic situations, work may have been the respite they needed. Without this escape, situations may deteriorate and again have an impact on their mental wellbeing.

Even when surrounded by family members, home workers may still feel isolated. If their job is one where they cannot share the details or share their concerns, it may add a deeper burden on them. You do not have to be alone to feel lonely.

Beyond the challenges of home working, we should not forget those lone workers who are still out and about in the community remote working (including volunteers) and those workers who are alone in business premises. Delivery drivers, maintenance staff, utilities workers, postal staff, facilities managers and security professionals are some of the very few people we are still seeing out and about at present. Now more than ever they are truly lone working.

The lock-down for them may change the type of risk, but it may not change the level of risk. It may also change the effectiveness of our current control measures.

The Risks

Lone Working itself is not the risk, but it can impact on the likelihood of some incidents occurring (violence, aggression, effects of stress, isolation, mental health and wellbeing issues) and can in some circumstances aggravate the impact of an incident (sudden illness, medical crisis, falls etc).

There is no legal requirement to conduct a specific, separate risk assessment for lone workers. But you should be considering how the lone working element of a task may impact on the risk.

To assess the risks associated with lone working, the HSE has adapted the PET2 analysis (developed by Worthwhile Training in 2002) and suggests you consider the following:

  • The lone worker and the people they may come into contact with
  • How experienced is the worker? Do they have any relevant medical conditions? What training have they received? Is there any other reason they may be vulnerable?
  • When considering the people they come into contact with, do you know their stress levels? Do they have previous history of aggression? Will they be pleased to see your worker?
  • The environment the worker is in and the equipment they are using
  • Does the workplace pose a specific risk? Is it rural/isolated/high crime? Are they in someone else’s home/territory? Is there a safe way out?
  • Do they have the correct PPE? Is machinery safe to be operated by one person? Do they have an adequate and reliable means of communication and a way to call for help?
  • The task they are doing and how it could trigger an incident
  • Is it a security role? Are they enforcing rules? Are they denying a service? Are they handling cash? Asking for payment? Are they working under high pressure/high levels of stress?

All these questions are just as relevant during COVID-19.

If you consider the security role: some of the people Security Officers come into contact with at present may well be under greater levels of stress, they may be being asked to abide by rules they do not wish to. The Security Officer may be more isolated, in a different environment than normal. The need for reliable communication tools and ensuring workers are trained and have ability to manage difficult situations is paramount.

The Solutions

Providing the right tools, training and support is vital at the best of times (and these are not the best of times). So now is the time to revisit your controls and ensure that you are doing all that you can to fulfil your legal (and moral) responsibilities.

PPE that is required at the minute goes beyond the usual needed to protect against aggression and violence, muscular strains etc. You should be considering infection control where appropriate.

Effective training in how to defuse situations maybe even more important right now. If a lone worker cannot get support and help as quickly as in normal circumstances, then they have to rely on their own skills and strategies to safeguard their own safety. Verbal and non-verbal skills may be different at the required social distance (or with face masks) and this should be considered in timely training.

Many organisations are re-considering the communication and support mechanisms they have in place. Not only ‘at the time of an incident’ support and assessing how their workers would get help if required, they are also considering provision that may be needed to support workers in the longer term post-incident. 

 A View of the Future

Before the pandemic, levels of lone working was rising due to advances in technology that made it possible and budget restraints that often made it vital.

Post COVID-19, no one knows what the world will look like, but the chances are this trend towards lone working will continue. Even when people are back in the workplace, there will be fewer people around in our offices, warehouses, shops etc. making it more likely that people may end up inadvertently lone working.

Any resources invested in developing robust lone working procedures and controls can only be time and money well spent. Those businesses that get this right for now, will be well placed to meet the new work regime and thrive.

Nicole Vazquez

Nicole is a Director with Worth Training and has been helping organisations manage risks to their staff for over 25 years. Her advice is valued in the UK and beyond, across sectors including retail, rail, housing and government departments for its pragmatic, straightforward approach and measurable results. Nicole has a particular interest in Lone Working and specifically how this can affect personal security, safety and wellbeing. For the last three years she has hosted the annual Lone Worker Safety Live Conference, an event that brings together experts who share their knowledge on ways to keep people safe and secure when working without the support and back up of colleagues