Last reviewed 3 January 2017

Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance states that employers have a duty to assess risks to lone workers and take steps to avoid or control risks. Mike Sopp looks at the advancements in personal communication devices which are now being used to enable the lone worker to transmit his or her location and request assistance when they feel threatened or at risk.

Introduction

The British Security Industry Association (BSIA) estimates that some six million individuals work in isolation or without direct supervision in the UK.

Working alone can normally be carried out safely but employees can sometimes find themselves in places or circumstances that put them at potential risk, particularly in relation to their personal safety.

To meet their legal responsibilities, it is increasingly common for employers to utilise electronic devices, known as “lone worker devices”, that enable employees to transmit their location and request assistance when they feel threatened or at risk.

The need for devices

Lone workers are defined by the HSE as “those who work by themselves without close or direct supervision” while the NHS Security Management Service defines lone working as “any situation, or location, in which someone works without a colleague nearby, or is out of sight or earshot of another colleague”.

Many lone workers, be they in a fixed establishment or working remotely, by the nature of the activities which they undertake can be more vulnerable and at increased risk of physical or verbal abuse and harassment.

The HSE guidance states that “employers have a duty to assess risks to lone workers and take steps to avoid or control risks where necessary”.

The purpose of the risk assessment is to identify the hazards, evaluate the risk (taking account of the existing risk controls) and determine what more needs to be done to eliminate the hazard or reduce the risk, if necessary.

There are many risk control methods that can be adopted, based upon:

  • safe place — through building design and physical security measures

  • safe systems — such as registers of potentially violent service users and job design

  • safe person — through conflict resolution training, use of PPE, etc.

Despite such measures, there can still be occasions where lone workers feel threatened or at risk and may need to summon assistance. How they do this in a potentially violent situation and ensure appropriate information is made available to ensure an appropriate response is undertaken can be challenging.

With advancements in information communication technology “personal communication devices” are now being used to enable the lone worker to transmit their location and request assistance when they feel threatened or at risk. This includes the use of lone worker devices (LWDs).

Lone worker devices

BS 8484 defines a LWD as an “electronic device able to transmit LWD identity and position information and to provide communications”.

According to the HSE, the provision of such devices alone will not prevent incidents from occurring but “may form part of a number of reasonably practicable control measures to help manage the risk” and that “if used correctly and in conjunction with robust procedures, they will improve the protection of lone workers”.

Depending on the circumstances, there are various types of system available, including:

  • internal alert systems that are activated from either portable or static “panic buttons” in fixed establishments

  • mobile devices and systems that incorporate for example, global positioning satellite (GPS) technology or GSM (mobile phone) technology.

As well as meeting legal obligations, the use of LWDs can bring peace of mind to lone workers with respect to their personal safety. Depending on the type of system and technology used, they can also:

  • be discrete in nature (eg identity badge style)

  • be wearable making them easily accessible

  • capture data in terms of recording information that can be used in legal proceedings

  • provide two-way communication

  • provide location data information.

It is worth noting that smartphone software applications are now available as an alternative to using a dedicated LWD. The BSIA notes that “while these are not always ideal for high risk lone workers, they are a viable option for some clients who do not want to carry additional hardware”.

The employer, when considering the type of system required will need to take into account a number of factors, not least identification of lone workers including their work environment and the tasks being undertaken. They will also need to consider:

  • the means of receiving an alert (eg to a central control room or alarm receiving centre)

  • the information that will be required when an alert signal is transmitted

  • the response required, based upon the information available (eg will it be internal security or is a police response required).

These issues can be particularly important when considering mobile devices and certainly the employer should be looking for a robust LWD system that gives confidence and assurance to users.

The BSIA has recognised this and working with the British Standards Institution have developed BS 8484: Code of Practice for the Provision of Lone Worker Device (LWD) Services.

The BSIA states that BS 8484 is “the basis on which Police respond to lone worker systems, so it's important for employers to choose a supplier who works to these standards”.

Device misuse and staff training

Lone working devices must only be used for their intended purpose; that is to improve the safety of lone workers. The NHS guidance on LWD’s notes that “to use them for other purposes will compromise the integrity of the system and may deter lone workers from using it” thereby jeopardising a lone workers’ safety.

In some cases, where systems meet BS 8484 requirements, the police may refuse to attend incidents if there has been a history of misuse or false alarms.

If an LWD is misused frequently or maliciously, the matter should be referred to the appropriate person within the organisation for investigation.

All employees involved in the LWD system (not just end-users) must be given sufficient time to become familiar with lone worker procedures, systems and devices before they are expected to use them in their day-to-day work. The training will include:

  • the rationale for the employer’s adoption of the system derived from risks identified through the risk assessment process

  • key operational elements of the system (eg devices, alarm receiving, maintenance)

  • protocols for using the devices and the devices’ operational functions

  • user responsibilities and procedures to ensure the devices are not abused and are working efficiently

  • alarm handling process and escalation through the emergency services.

Written instruction in the use of any devices and wider system is normally available from the supplier of the equipment and should be integrated into the training.

It is essential that the devices are only actuated to summon assistance when the employee is in danger of being assaulted or has been threatened. It is therefore essential that users are instructed on the protocols for use, which can be based upon an escalation process.

The BSIA has produced guidance on this aspect. It can be useful to undertake some scenario-based training in this aspect to provide users of the LWDs with case studies and worked examples.

As with any alarm system, it is essential that the system is working efficiently. Users must therefore be instructed in how to protect devices from accidental misuse or damage. They should also be instructed to:

  • ensure the device battery is fully charged before utilising the device

  • check that the signal strength is adequate

  • ensure the device is protected from unfavourable environmental and climatic conditions

  • ensure they can reach the device and operate it easily and discreetly.

Further information

British Security Industry Association, available at www.bsia.co.uk

  • A Guide to Buying a Lone Worker Service

  • The Use of a Lone Worker Device or App

  • Lone Workers — an Employers Guide

NHS Protect, available at www.nhsbsa.nhs.uk

  • A Guide for the Better Protection of Lone Workers in the NHS

  • NHS Lone Worker Protection Service: User Guide

  • Improving Safety for Lone Workers: A Guide for Managers (POSHH)

British Standards Institution, available at www.bsigroup.com

  • BS 8484: Code of Practice for the Provision of Lone Worker Device (LWD) Services