Lone workers are more likely to be subjected to physical violence, aggression and abuse while in the course of their duty. As almost 25% of the working population can be classed in this category, it’s important to ensure the safety – both physically and mentally – of such workers. On behalf of the British Security Industry Association, Nicole Vazquez outlines the main points to note for today’s organisations.
In 2013, Andrew Lacovou was brutally murdered during a morning robbery at the Ladbrokes outlet where he was lone working. Just last month, a security officer suffered a fractured cheekbone when he was attacked after challenging a group of men outside a Hampshire Bowling Centre, while another was severely assaulted with a bicycle seat and post outside a supermarket when refusing entry to someone under the influence of alcohol.
There’s a great deal of evidence that staff classified as ‘lone workers’ are more likely to be subjected to physical violence, aggression and abuse. For front line and customer-facing staff, this may be as a result of dealing with angry customers, preventing theft, enforcing rules or managing unacceptable behaviour.
Sadly, in today’s society we have to consider the potential for particularly nasty incidents such as knife attacks, sexual assault, acid attacks and even major terrorist incidents. While these kinds of incidents are extremely rare, they can and do have an impact on the fear levels and confidence of those working alone.
Lone working can also have an effect on more general Health and Safety risks. Although there’s nothing to suggest that a lone worker is more likely to have a medical emergency or be taken ill, there’s a very real potential for an increase in the level of harm where help cannot be summoned quickly. Similarly, if the lone worker has an accident, without some means of calling for assistance, any injury sustained may increase in severity.
Aside from specific incidents, it’s commonly accepted that working alone (especially for long periods of time or in high pressure situations) can increase levels of stress, which in turn may well have a detrimental impact on a given individual’s mental health and well-being.
These effects can place the businesses that employ lone workers under extra strain, which might then lead to business interruption, the potential for prosecution or legal action, the loss of staff, an impact on staff morale and customer experience or damage to brand and reputation.
How, then, can today’s organisations ensure that they’ve fulfilled their legal and moral responsibility for the safety of their lone workers?
Assessing the risks
The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) definition of a lone worker is straightforward: “Those that work by themselves without close or direct supervision”. It makes no reference to timespan and/or place of work. Organisations often forget those people who only occasionally lone work just for short periods of time, or who are left in the office when everyone else goes out and about. It’s important for businesses to capture and record their lone working wherever and whenever it occurs.
Once acknowledged, risk assessments should identify how lone working can impact on existing risks or create new risks. The HSE has set a benchmark that states: “Lone workers should not be put at more risk than other employees”. However, in reality this can be a hard standard to reach. There will be additional controls needed and it may mean that certain tasks are assessed as too dangerous (and uncontrollable) to be carried out by a lone individual.
If lone working makes up a large element of an organisation’s activities, then a Lone Worker Policy is the ideal place to set out a new ethos and approach towards lone working and its associated risks. Working procedures are vital and offer workers clear guidance and set expectations and responsibilities for day-to-day activities. It’s still common to come across organisations where the procedures written for lone working neither match the ethos in their policy or the reality of day-to-day working. An organisation recently clearly stated in its own policy that those security patrols identified as high risk should ‘never be carried out alone’ – yet the procedures said: ‘…where possible, not carried out alone’. The actual practice was (as reported by staff) ‘pretty much always on our own’.
For lone working procedures to be adopted and translated into actions that will have a positive impact on safety, they need to be aspirational and effective while at the same time realistic and achievable. Not always an easy balance.
Taking practical measures
In terms of applied control measures designed to reduce lone working risk, technology has really come to the fore over the past few years. The latest advances mean that remote workers can be located with a great level of accuracy, allowing assistance to be sent if needed.
When in need of help, the varied ways in which lone workers can summon assistance have also improved. The ability to make a discreet call for assistance can help in those situations where workers are faced with aggression or violence, while more reliable man-down systems assist when workers are unable to make the call themselves.
Some organisations that employ lone workers have begun to introduce a variety of wearable technology that not only allows the lone worker to communicate, but also offers the opportunity to send out local and timely information that could have an impact on safety directly for the worker.
Front line staff who face regular aggression are also being equipped with body-worn video. While some Trade Unions have been resistant to this in the past, the results speak for themselves and it would be difficult to argue against the positive impact – when combined with effective training – that these devices are having.
The training option
All of the above solutions can have an impact on confidence and go some way towards demonstrating an organisation’s commitment to the safety of their staff. However, lone workers also need to have the ability and skills at their disposal to make the right choices and stay safe as well. Effective training for lone workers is crucially important to ensure competence.
Exactly what training should an organisation provide, though? As the variety of lone working – even within one business – can be massive, it makes sense to explore what specific training is required as a ‘sheep-dip’ approach is a waste of time, money and resources. A solid training needs analysis would take into consideration the activity, identified risks, current skills, knowledge and experience lone workers may already have.
There are often different areas of lone working within an organisation such as driving, cashing up and locking up which require their own specific training. There will be a need to want to cover a broader base, providing transferable skills and approaches. These can include dynamic risk assessment tools, situational and behavioural awareness and communication and conflict management skills. With the element of risk beyond the standard procedures to enable general safety, there may be the need to provide major incident training, ensuring staff know about evacuation, lock-down and shelter-in-place protocols.
Giving lone workers training isn’t about telling them how to do their job from scratch. Rather, it’s about potentially asking them to change behaviours that have become comfortable habits. Even lone workers who are concerned about their safety can find it hard to make changes unless they can see and feel the value of doing so.
Whatever the risk faced by lone workers, it’s ultimately their behaviour and actions that will keep them safe. A clear message that ‘safety is paramount’ should be reinforced by the culture within an organisation. Undoubtedly, this is the most powerful way in which to drive correct behaviour.
Specifics of lone worker safety training
Conflict management training The ability to de-escalate a situation before it becomes physical or violent
Real-time risk assessment and awareness training There are many situations that cannot be foreseen or turned into a process/procedure so the ability for the lone worker to make this assessment and take appropriate action is critical when unable to contact their manager
Provision of protective equipment and medical kit Where appropriate and specific to the task at hand, these can be absolutely essential
Technology, mobile tracking and alerting There are solutions that enable lone workers to be – by consent – tracked during their working time such that management can exercise their Duty of Care. Some systems also have a panic button on the mobile device that can alert staff when they have not received a GPS position after a certain amount of time or indeed haven’t changed position after a set amount of time
Culture and relationships It’s important for the organisation to create opportunities to build relationships with both office-based and lone worker staffing groups recognising that this doesn’t happen naturally. Examples of this could be company days, office days or events held off-site that bring staff together in a neutral environment. This also creates opportunities to reinforce company culture and values within and between teams.
Part of this isn’t just about recognising there are different staffing groups, but also explaining these differences and communicating the value that each brings to the organisation. The value of doing this should never be underestimated or disregarded as a ‘warm and fuzzy’ initiative, but key to ensuring that part of your workforce isn’t unseen and undervalued.
Nicole Vazquez is Director of Worthwhile Training
*This article was kindly provided by HFX Limited