The pandemic has highlighted the importance of protecting employee health and safety, especially for those in public-facing roles, working unsociable hours or who are isolated or out of earshot of others. Personal safety technology can be a real benefit here, argues Naz Dossa, and calls are growing for it to be classified as workplace ‘PPE’.
Covid-19 has raised important questions about the duty of care that employers have for their employees.
One effect of this has been to raise the profile of occupational health; increasing awareness of its value in propagating workplace wellbeing and productivity.
Health and safety
For OH practitioners this new surge in interest from employers could seem like a double-edged sword. The fact employers are more focused on the wellbeing of their workforce is, of course, an incredibly positive thing.
However, the ways in which the pandemic has reshaped the world of work are making it much harder than before to do an effective job of monitoring and protecting each employee’s physical health and safety, let alone their mental health.
Even as lockdown restrictions now ease, many firms are announcing plans to adopt permanent flexible or hybrid working models.
Protections for remote workers
The new home-working trend means more employees than ever before could now be classed as remote workers, a group afforded extra protections under Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance, appropriately updated during March 2020.
Add to this the extra consideration that must be given to social distancing measures, meaning that more workers must operate in isolation or out of earshot of others, and it’s little wonder that many firms are looking for new tools to help them ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of employees – during working hours and beyond.
Where does responsibility end? Recent research conducted by Peoplesafe has revealed that more than three-quarters of UK businesses have experienced an increase in employee safety requirements over the last 12 months. In addition to this, a quarter have seen an increase in lone workers on site or in the field, as well as those working remotely to comply with Covid-19 guidelines.
Recent research conducted by Peoplesafe has revealed that more than three-quarters of UK businesses have experienced an increase in employee safety requirements over the last 12 months. In addition to this, a quarter have seen an increase in lone workers on site or in the field, as well as those working remotely to comply with Covid-19 guidelines.”
The significance of lone working is twofold: it both increases the occurrence of some types of risk to the employee, and also increases the possibility of a more serious outcome; where this could usually be mitigated by the presence of a supervisor or colleague.
Risks associated with public-facing roles
One risk which has risen in prevalence during the pandemic is the threat of violence from members of the public.
Peoplesafe’s own figures documented a 200% increase year-on-year in incidents in the hospitality sector during summer 2020, while workers conducting household visits in industries such as telecoms and care also witnessed greater risks.
Duncan Robins, health, safety, environment and quality management manager at Virgin Media, told Peoplesafe: “Last summer we saw heightened tensions which led to an increase in aggressive behaviour between members of the public and people within our business. The training we implement is to remove yourself… we can replace equipment, but we can’t replace you.”
But what if it’s more difficult to remove yourself from a risky situation? And what if the danger occurs while travelling to and from work? This has been the case for many essential workers during periods of lockdown, who have not only faced an ‘increased potential for violence’ over the past 12-18 months, according to NHS sources, but are also more likely to be travelling alone on emptier public transport and during unsociable hours.
What’s clear from the updated HSE guidance is that an employer’s responsibility to its employees doesn’t end when their shift does.
In fact, the guidance places an explicit duty on employers to implement, “a robust system to ensure a lone worker has returned to their base or home once their work is completed”. This is in addition to a basic requirement to supervise and monitor lone workers during the working day, as well as responding promptly to any problems or incidents.
Mental health risks of lone working
It is also crucial to recognise that the extra protective measures afforded to lone workers were not just published with their physical safety in mind.
The HSE leaflet, ‘Protecting lone workers – How to manage the risks of working alone’ also recognises the additional risks to mental health that lone working creates and the increased potential for a negative impact on stress-levels.
Completing tasks where there is a risk of physical harm can lead to increased anxiety, or previous traumatic experiences might leave workers feeling more vulnerable and stressed than before. In addition, the acknowledgement that, “if contact is poor, employees may feel disconnected, isolated or abandoned, which can affect their performance and potentially their stress levels or mental health” would now be relevant to any remote worker, even where desk-based tasks at home means that risk of physical injury is low.
The crucial role of technology
When it comes to covering the increasing – and essential – requirements of good communication and personal safety, technology has a crucial role to play.
It is also an excellent way to provide support and peace of mind that extends beyond the working day. The type of technology employers choose will be dependent on a number of circumstances and many OH practitioners will already be familiar with some of the solutions on offer.
With around half of businesses having already invested in some form of tech solution and 71% planning to invest during the next one to three years, it’s worth taking the time to understand what’s out there and what benefits different products or services could deliver.
Connected health and wellbeing technology ranges from apps that can be downloaded on to mobile phones through to sophisticated wearable devices with GPS tracking and fall detection functionality.
This technology is being increasingly relied upon to fulfil a range of different purposes, from boosting communication across an increasingly remote workforce to providing incident response and support to vulnerable workers.
Many organisations are also turning to technology like our new ‘SOS’ app to provide round-the-clock assistance to ensure employees get home safely, particularly if they are commuting on public transport or travelling to remote or off-site parking locations.
For larger organisations, such as Royal Mail, technology is being used to entirely reshape risk management processes. Dr Shaun Davis, global director of compliance and sustainability at Royal Mail told Peoplesafe: “The biggest challenge [created by social distancing measures] was moving away from our shared van model to single occupancy van usage… it meant a focus on individual security, van security, knowing where individuals are and being able to account for them. It created the need to bring together our security function, our safety function and our operational function.”
The importance of personal safety technology to employee safety and wellbeing is such that leading industry figures are now calling for it to be reclassified as PPE.
This move would help businesses to access the funding needed to accelerate the roll out of PPET (personal protective equipment and technology) and provide a better level of protection for the health of our most vulnerable workers.
- For more information on how changing working practices are transforming the role of health and safety and the use of technology, you can download full Peoplesafe report at PPE & Tech: The role of technology in protecting lone workers