Last reviewed 5 December 2012

Joanne Crawford examines the dangers of lone working and precautions that can be taken to ensure lone workers are safe.

Introduction

Lone working is defined as working by oneself without close contact with others or close or direct supervision. This can include a variety of work activities such as home working, working away from others, or groups including cleaners, security staff or maintenance staff who work independently.

Lone workers may be working by themselves as a result of out of hours working or shift work. Although there is no specific legislation covering this type of work, risks should be assessed and managed as they would for other work tasks by the Management of Health and Safety Regulations 1999 and the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974.

Laboratory work

The definition covers a large variety of different roles and lone working in a laboratory and introduces a number of risk management challenges. As with any potential risk to health and safety, the first approach would be to determine which individuals are required to be lone working and assess the risks associated with their work, This would be carried out as a normal part of laboratory working but in the first stage of risk reduction, minimising the needs for lone working or working outside of normal hours should be done. The Royal Society of Chemistry (2010) has identified a number of tasks where lone working can be required, including:

  • checks of laboratory equipment/experiments

  • routine cleaning and maintenance work

  • sampling industrial effluent or stack gases

  • work with analytical and physical chemical equipment

  • necessary work in storage areas, temperature-controlled rooms and isolation units

  • working in control rooms, offices, libraries, computer workstations and at home.

In controlling the potential hazards from lone working, where it is required, procedures should be put in place to manage the risks identified. It would be beneficial when identifying the potential hazards and assessing the risks from lone working in laboratory environments to take a participatory approach involving the staff who are carrying out the tasks. This will enable a shared development of risk assessments and risk reduction measures which will allow the clearer understanding of possible work issues between the laboratory team and supervisors.

When considering the tasks carried out in the laboratory the following questions should be asked.

  • What could go wrong and introduce an accident or emergency, eg spillage of a dangerous chemical, fire, injury from a microtome?

  • Would the presence of a second worker make a significant difference to the likelihood and outcome of an accident?

In general lone working should be limited to carrying out relatively simple low risk operations. However if supervisors do permit a particular task to be carried out by lone workers, they should confirm that a second person would remain within calling distance and is capable of providing assistance in an emergency. Those carrying out such work must be suitably competent as well as the back up person chosen. It is also important that someone can be contactable by phone if there are any problems.

The risk assessment process may identify jobs that are too high risk for one person to carry out and this should be clearly documented and procedures put in place to ensure that more than one person is available for such tasks or the process is suitably modified. Where the level of risk is such that tasks can be carried out by one individual, training needs will require evaluation for guidance on safe working and related emergency procedures. In transferring this knowledge to the laboratory worker, this has to include how to safely shut down working processes and the procedures in dealing with emergencies. This may cover the use of emergency showers, eye wash equipment, PPE and fire-fighting equipment. It is important that all training provided and evaluation methods are fully documented to ensure staff have received the necessary training and this can be checked as part of the ongoing risk management process. Emergency equipment should also be regularly maintained and records kept of these work programmes. Furthermore, safe ways into, around and out of laboratory environments should also be documented and employees given information on the alternative exit routes.

As well as emergency procedures, how best for lone workers to maintain contact with security staff or co-workers should be addressed. As with all out of hours working, signing in and out of the building will be essential. Consideration may also need to be made of the use of personal alarm systems or maintaining contact at regular agreed periods with supervisors or security staff. Procedures that are set up must be adhered to by all concerned to ensure the continued safety of lone workers. Periodic reviews of those who are employed as lone workers should be carried out as part of the laboratory risk assessment and include the worker, the supervisor, the process and the occurrence of any incidents.

Access to and from buildings for individuals lone working out of hours should also be addressed. Is there safe and secure parking available for individuals or other safe ways of getting to and from work? If working out of hours or night working, parking close to the work site, which is well lit, and vehicle security are essential. Security staff should be able to assist when this work is planned.

Other aspects of lone working that laboratory staff may be involved with is that of collecting samples from other sites, eg water sampling, soil sampling, taking samples from buildings. Again the risk assessment process should be used to recognise potential hazards and likely risks and so determine the steps to be taken to reduce any risks identified. This is likely to include assessment of occupational road risk and driver safety.

The health of the laboratory worker should also be taken into account when lone working is required. Are they fit to carry out this work or are they at risk from particular health issues? The impact of shift work for those working out of hours has been well documented and care should be taken in the design of shift patterns and ensuring that there are adequate rest and recovery periods between shifts. Further information is available from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on shift work and managing fatigue.

In summary, with good risk management processes and adequate training and education of laboratory workers, risks can be reduced to enable safe working practice for lone working in laboratory environments. There have to be transparent processes and audits to ensure all employees involved understand the risks, safe working procedures and emergency action plans. Care must be taken with individuals working out of hours to ensure that fatigue is managed in compliance with the Working Time Regulations 1998.

Reference sources

  • INDG73 (rev 2)Working alone: Health and safety guidance on the risks of lone working, HSE Books, 2009.

  • Environment, Health and Safety Committee Note on: LONE WORKING AND LABORATORY ACTIVITIES, RSC, 2010.