Managing the risks to lone workers

Lone workers can face risks those in an office environment may not even think about. Walter Brennan explains how to evaluate these and handle them effectively.

As with any other form of work, employers are expected to undertake a risk assessment before employees are allowed to work alone. In the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance document Working alone, a lone worker is defined as someone who works by themselves without close or direct supervision. Lone workers include those who:

  • work from a fixed base, such as one person working alone on a premises – for example, shops and petrol stations;
  • work separately from others on the same premises – for example, security staff – or work outside normal hours;
  • work away from a fixed base – for example, maintenance workers, healthcare workers, environment inspectors, agricultural and forestry workers and those working in enclosed spaces;
  • work at home; and
  • mobile workers – for example, taxi drivers.

The law and lone working

Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 places a legal responsibility on employers to:

  • prepare a written health and safety policy and bring it to the attention of employees;
  • provide safe systems of work;
  • provide a safe working environment for employees; and
  • provide information, instruction training and supervision.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, made under the Health and Safety at Work Act, are more specific and explicit to employers.

Corporate manslaughter conviction

In February 2011, legal history was made when Cotswold Geotechnical was found guilty at Winchester Crown Court of corporate manslaughter relating to an employee’s death. It was the first prosecution under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007. Employee Alexander Wright, 27, was alone in the 12.6ft-deep unsupported trial pit when it caved in at a development site in Stroud, Gloucestershire, in September 2008, and died of traumatic asphyxia. Mr Justice Field, the presiding judge, said the gross breach of the company’s duty to Mr Wright was a “grave offence” and it was fined £385,000.

Employees working alone should at all times be at no greater risk than other employees. It is an employer’s duty to assess risks to employees and take steps to avoid or control the risks.

Risk assessments and action plans aim to make good health and safety management more proactive than the traditional reactive approach. They need to reflect how hazards can change based upon various factors, such as perception, experience, location, time of day, the nature of the work being carried out and whether or not the employee is regarded as a lone worker.

It is therefore crucial that risk assessments are communicated, understood and reviewed by all parties involved regularly.

The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 clarifies the criminal liabilities of companies, including large organisations where serious failures in the management of health and safety result in a fatality.

The HSE introduced a simple five-step risk assessment, which is illustrated below, to help employers establish the risk from a corporate perspective.

1. Identify the hazards

As a first step, you should identify any possible hazards by examining:

  • the nature of the job;
  • the type of clients or customers the employee may work with or may encounter;
  • the places, locations, times and environments that are relevant;
  • the views of the staff; and
  • incident reports, including any near misses.

2. Decide who might be harmed and how

Next, think about:

  • which staff and types of employees might be harmed?
  • what type of injury or ill health might occur – for example, through violence if employees are attacked; through hostage taking or false imprisonment; or by doing something against the customer’s wishes?

3. Evaluate the risks and decide on precautions

In this third step, you should:

  • decide whether the existing precautions are adequate or more should be done;
  • whether or not the risks are low or acceptable;
  • establish if there are systems in place aimed at eliminating or reducing the risk, and whether or not you have clear risk assessments;
  • find out if staff have skills in defusing situations
  • discover if your company has a clear policy, procedure and guidelines for visiting or dealing with clients while alone;
  • find out if there is a clear audit trail to ensure colleagues know the whereabouts of an employee in the event of non-return to the office or reporting back to head office; and
  • establish if staff have personal alarms, mobile telephones or mobile panic alarms (electronic ID badges) that can alert the employer to the employee’s location.

4. Record your findings and implement them

At this stage, you should:

  • complete a risk assessment;
  • design an action plan; and
  • communicate the information to employees.

5. Review your assessment and update if necessary

Step five ensures you keep your action plan up to date by:

  • reviewing the plan on a regular basis, but at least once a year;
  • changing and amending the plan as required; and
  • ensuring the action plan is completed and implemented.

The HSE does not have a recommended risk assessment for lone workers facing specific hazards, so once the risk assessment is completed it is necessary to consider an action plan for the safety of lone workers. Here are some specific pointers:

  • Ensure the lone worker policy is relevant and that all workers know about it.
  • Where lone workers are visiting people, ensure any referral is risk assessed before each visit.
  • Where necessary, provide staff training in:
    • risk assessment;
    • defusion/de-escalation skills;
    • breakaway/disengagement techniques; and
    • first aid training and dealing with an emergency.
  • Develop an audit trail so staff can monitor lone worker locations.
  • Consider providing mobile telephones, panic alarms and/or an electronic ID alert to lone workers.
  • Provide personal protective equipment and clothing where the risk assessment has identified these as being required.
  • Consider if the premises to be visited are secure and alarmed.

Rapid risk assessment

In a bid to try to predict the hazard of violence to lone workers visiting customers, clients or even colleagues, there are a number of fundamental questions that need to be asked in a risk assessment from an organisational perspective. These are:

  • Do workers understand the rationale for having to undertake a risk assessment?
  • Do workers actually comply with the completion of the risk assessment?
  • Is the risk assessment process designed to be easy and user friendly?
  • Does the risk assessment process combine individual and health and safety issues?
  • Does it fit on one side of A4 paper or can it be easily computerised?
  • Does it use a basic traffic-light scoring system?
  • Can it be accessed easily?

Ten-point assessment tool

Lone worker tragedy

Farmer Geoffrey Jameson, 32, from Daddry Shield near Bishop Auckland, had gone out as usual one morning to tend to the cattle on his parents farm on his quad bike. But when he failed to return as normal his parents became concerned. He was found dead several hours later. Police said Mr Jameson had apparently tried to negotiate a steep hill when the quad bike overturned, trapping him underneath.

Here is an example of a simple risk assessment tool that uses 10 questions to evaluate risk:

1. Do you know the client/customer/service user and their family?
Yes = 1, No = 3

The better somebody is known to you, then the better you are at making judgments regarding their future behaviour. The less you know, the more you should be concerned.

2. If the answer to question one is “no”, are you able to access information from other services – for example, from the police, social services, the local authority or colleagues?
Yes = 1, No = 3

Making predictions about a person’s future behaviour needs to be as informed as possible, and other sources of information can provide answers to facilitate better judgment.

3. Is there a known history of violence or harassment from the client/service user/customer?
Yes = 6, No = 1

The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. The fact that the person has a history of violence must be acknowledged, and as such this factor is of cardinal importance. A “yes” to this question in itself should be a decisive factor – hence why it scores six points. This immediately means that visiting the person alone should not happen in any circumstances.

4. Is the area where the client to be visited lives known to be unsafe – for example, is there poor lighting, high-rise flats, gangs, vandalised lifts or a history of robberies?
Yes = 3, No=1

Sometimes it is not the client that is the problem, but the area where they live. High-risk areas should also be treated appropriately. Visiting an address at 10am may be safer than going at 4pm in the winter when it is dark.

5. Do you have a tracking system to ensure colleagues know of your whereabouts or time of anticipated return to the office or home?
Yes = 1, No = 3

There is a clear need for employees who work alone to be accessible, possibly through the use of an audit trail recording where they are going to be, at what time and for how long. Technology now exists that enables dedicated systems to be introduced using mobile phones in the form of identity badges that carry a signal and use satellite tracking software to pinpoint a person’s location to within a couple of metres. If you do not have a system such as this in place, do you and your colleagues have an agreed code word to alert them to a potentially dangerous predicament without arousing suspicion in the client?

6. Does each lone worker have a mobile telephone and personal alarm?
Yes = 1, No = 3

Once possibly viewed as luxury items, today such items should be essential pieces of personal protective equipment for the lone worker. Even having a personal alarm that emits a loud screech may distract a potential aggressor to allow for escape through another route or, if the employee is trapped, then they may be able to contact emergency services. This can make all the difference between life and death.

7. Can the lone worker call upon a colleague to accompany them on the visit?
Yes =1, No = 3

Working in pairs is safer. Increasingly, it is becoming standard practice that all first visits should be conducted by two people. Once the risk has been identified as low, then future visits may be done individually.

8. Does the lone worker have training in de-escalation skills?
Yes = 1, No = 3

Good training in calming angry people is just one measure employers can introduce for lone worker safety. Being able to calm and soothe somebody’s anger is a skill that can be learned, practised and implemented.

9. Can the lone worker break away from a violent person?
Yes = 1, No = 3, Not sure = 3

Having skills in breakaways or disengagement allow for a victim to use fast, effective techniques to escape and make themselves safe. But if the skills are not used, they rapidly disappear unless they are updated on a regular basis.

So, it is important that lone workers who feel unsure about whether or not they can implement such skills should score the issue as a definite “no”.

10. Is the task the lone worker is about to undertake likely to trigger violence?
Yes = 3, No = 1, Not sure = 3

Some tasks by their very nature are simple and easy to deliver, while others are almost certain to prompt a negative response. It is important to recognise that certain visits may increase the danger to the lone worker. An example may be a district nurse who is visiting a patient who lives with an angry relative, or a human resources manager who may become involved in a dangerous situation dealing with an angry employee who has taken exception to what he regards as “unfair” criticism.

Scoring the risk assessment is intended to break the level risk into low, medium and high using a traffic-light system.

At the end of completing the risk assessment, add up your score: a score of 10 to 15 indicates low risk (green); scoring 16 to 23 indicates medium risk (amber); and scoring above 24 indicates high risk (red). This system enables the lone worker to consider the best way to proceed and what extra measures may need to be taken.

Gut feelings

One important factor that should not be discounted is the role of the gut feeling or intuition. While it is often difficult to articulate or identify exactly what we mean by these terms, there are often occasions when despite everything appearing right, something nags at us telling us it is not. Our “sixth sense” should not be ignored.

quotemarksOne important factor that should not be discounted is the role of the gut feeling or intuition.”

In 2001, while working with an electricity supplier on designing a training course for their electricians, certain factors came to light. These lone workers repair electricity supplies at customers’ homes or business premises around the West Midlands and had encountered threats of aggression and violence. This catalogue of anecdotal evidence helped to shape the course design, including one electrician who was locked in a house by a customer who had a crossbow in his hands.

When he finally escaped by offering to get the person some beer, he reported the incident to his supervisor, who laughed and told him that this kind of situation had occurred with the same customer only a few months previously.

A one-day course for lone workers should cover the following:

  • defining and recognising lone working;
  • aspects of the work that may increase the risk of violence;
  • trigger factors for aggression and violence;
  • how to rapidly risk assess any potential danger;
  • safe driving – particularly dealing with “road rage”;
  • how to defuse a situation with an angry person;
  • the assault cycle; and
  • how to break away from an aggressive person.

Conclusion

Risk assessment enables hazards to be quantified and managed more effectively. But it is important that the risk assessment does what it is meant to do – predict the likelihood of injury and make employees amend their behaviour accordingly. While some aspects of lone working are inherently high risk, the failure to put systems in place to reduce recognised risk could leave employers open to charges of negligence and costly litigation.

Walter Brennan is a training consultant, trained mediator and expert witness in stress and conflict.

References

Health and Safety Executive (2009). Working alone.

Health and Safety Executive. Corporate Manslaughter FAQs.

Crown Prosecution Service (2012). Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings convicted of first corporate manslaughter charge under new act.

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