Last reviewed 2 August 2017

With changes to working patterns, the number of people across different sectors working alone has risen to over six million. Some of the most hazardous environments are found in the construction industry. Dave Howell reports on the requirements regarding lone workers and advises on how their safety can be protected.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says lone workers are “those who work by themselves without close or direct supervision”. The Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to assess the risks to which such employees — or those involved in work activities such as contractors and the self-employed — may be exposed.

For employers across the construction sector, assessing potential risks and mitigating them where possible is even more important. New guidelines issued by the Sentencing Council last year now include significantly higher fines if employers are found guilty of breaching their duty of care. For very large organisations, the fine could run into the millions of pounds.

It is therefore vital for all employers in the construction sector to fully understand their responsibilities and take practical action to minimise the risks. The TUC points out that: “Too many employers either think that lone workers are covered by the same policies that apply to other employees or they believe that the only problem facing lone workers who work in the community is violence. While the threat of violence is very important this is unlikely to be the only risk, or even necessarily the main one.”

Even though employers are not compelled by any statutory regulations regarding lone workers, it is a sensible precaution to have a written lone worker policy that all employees must adhere to. This policy should set out the risk assessments that have been completed and give details of the best practice that is expected by the employing organisation. As construction uses high levels of contingent workers, ensuring they are aware of this policy and follow the guidelines is a critical business process.

Understanding risk

Employers in the construction sector need to assess their particular working environment. As no two construction sites will be identical, assessments need to be made that highlight relevant potential risks. The HSE offers this advice:

Employers should take account of normal work and foreseeable emergencies, eg fire, equipment failure, illness and accidents. Employers should identify situations where people work alone and consider the following.

  • Does the workplace present a specific risk to the lone worker, for example due to temporary access equipment, such as portable ladders or trestles that one person would have difficulty handling?

  • Is there a safe way in and out for one person, eg for a lone person working out of hours where the workplace could be locked up?

  • Is there machinery involved in the work that one person cannot operate safely?

  • Are chemicals or hazardous substances being used that may pose a particular risk to the lone worker?

  • Does the work involve lifting objects too large for one person?

  • Is there a risk of violence and/or aggression?

  • Are there any reasons why the individual might be more vulnerable than others and be particularly at risk if they work alone (for example if they are young, pregnant, disabled or a trainee)?

  • If the lone worker’s first language is not English, are suitable arrangements in place to ensure clear communications, especially in an emergency?

One key way to avoid accidents with lone workers is with thorough training. It can be difficult to impose a safety regime without the total support of all employees including contractors. Remember, the law on safety extends to all employees, no matter their employment status.

Protective devices

Supporting lone workers with safety technologies is also a clearly defined means to mitigate any incidents when they occur. Alarms have been available for several years that alert a call centre to an incident. Often using panic alarm technology, lone workers within the construction sector are familiar with these devices.

However, with the rise of wearable technology, personal protection has been rapidly evolving. One of the latest devices is from Doro, best known for their senior citizen alarms. The Doro 8020X is designed to monitor lone workers. The smartphone-based device also links to the company’s wrist trigger.

Other suppliers of alarm and monitoring systems and services include Skyguard, which has become the first supplier to meet the latest BS 8484:2016 standard for the provision of lone worker device services. Services from Guardian24 and Farsight also offer alarm receiving centre (ARC) services.

These devices have advanced from simply panic alarms to offering voice control and GPS to locate the user in an emergency, and “man-down” indicators where the device detects when the user moves into a horizontal position, which could indicate the worker has fallen.

BS 8484:2016 has been heavily influenced by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). For construction companies looking to buy devices this is important, as this accreditation will be recognised by local police forces who might be called upon to respond to an alarm. Compliance with the standard by device vendors will also give buyers confidence.

As with all services, construction companies should assess any new device or service before committing to it. Test for radio interference of signals and the accuracy of any GPS built into a device before committing to a service.

Ultimately, construction businesses need to ensure they have the full support of everyone that will be using the devices. Training is vital to ensure the devices are used correctly.

Lone workers can face a number of risks. Carefully assessing these risks and then developing a lone worker safety policy supported with robust and reliable monitoring systems will ensure every lone worker is safe.