Workers who regularly visit customers on their premises in their homes are often subject to a number of risks, particularly safety concerns in relation to animal encounters. Alan Field identifies and explains some of the key practical points to consider when making a risk assessment.

There are many risks to mobile workers, and animals constitute a range of hazards, some of which are not always immediately apparent. Here are some key points to consider when looking at risk assessments, controls and safe systems of work.

Animal encounters

Identifying hazards is an important part of any risk assessment. Farmland workers and those working in the rural industries face innumerous hazards, be it from cows, horses and pigs, or in some areas of the UK, from llamas and ostriches, the latter of which can be particularly dangerous to humans.

Animals can appear in unexpected places — for example, in some parts of the country, such as the New Forest, farm animals may be freely roaming alongside the public highway or actually on the roads themselves while in many other rural areas of the UK there may also be droving of farm animals from one field to another. Home visits can result in encounters with not only dogs but also exotic animals such as lizards, parrots and other more unexpected creatures. It is unclear how many tarantula spiders there are in captivity in the UK, but the British Tarantula Society will have in excess of 30,000 specimens entered for judging at their annual show; the actual number of tarantulas in captivity in the UK is probably much higher.

In other words, assumptions should not be made about the type of creatures that could be encountered — while a spaniel is a hazard more likely to be encountered than a dangerous spider, there needs to be clear protocols for all animal contacts, including risk minimisation of contact with pets in a customer's home or business premises.

The extent of harm that might be caused should always be considered. Firstly, risk assessments should not make value judgements based on popular perceptions; this especially applies to animal contacts. A friendly looking dog could be more inclined to bite a visiting worker than, say, a tarantula. As ever, with health and safety, briefing of staff and safe systems of work are always important to complete. While mobile workers operating in rural areas understand the risks of encounters with large farm animals, that is not to say that all will. How many, for example, will appreciate that most horses and cows will be in excess of half a ton in weight; some breeds considerably heavier. The risks of cattle, particularly bulls, are widely accepted and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has even issued guidance on aspects of this problem. Vehicular collisions, in particular, can be fatal for two- as well as for four-legged parties involved; in fields and yards many serious injuries involving cattle will simply be crushing injuries.

What may be simply enquiring behaviour on the creature's part could be fatal to a human who is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Benign animals can be killers too. No one would walk into a lion's enclosure without a risk assessment, yet some employees would let employee walk into a field of horses or cows. A different level of risk, it's true, but the outcome could be just as severe. It is just a matter of evaluation.

The statistics for animal contacts are disparately kept but — based on hospital admissions alone — there are some 6,500 cases of dog bites in the UK each year.

What are the controls?

Once a risk assessment has been completed, a number of practical points can be discerned.

  • All staff should be aware of the risk of animal contact. For those employees who may feel nervous of animals, they should act appropriately if they come into contact with them. For example, if exotic pets are on the premises, eg monitor lizards, snakes or spiders (assuming these are in a secure vivarium), the instruction should be leave them alone. There should be no tapping on the glass or asking the customer to take the creature out to show them off. This may sound trite, but these safety instructions are worth spelling out to all employees.

  • All staff should be aware that if they feel unsafe in the presence of any creature then they have the right to terminate the visit, in exactly the same way as if they have safety concerns directly involving the customer or their family.

  • Customer service protocols can help minimise animal contact risks. For example, when an appointment is made, enquiries could be made about pets in or near the house. This question could also be asked of small business customers, who may take pets to work with them. This information can be stored on the job notes. In the case of domestic pets such as dogs, the customer could be asked to keep them in a room with a closed door during the visit. This can have a positive outcome for reasons other than safety: tasks can often be completed more quickly without the distraction of animals.

  • Some organisations, such as Royal Mail and utility companies, have spent time training their staff in behavioural techniques when having animal contact. Both private consultancies and some animal charities may assist with such training. Typically, where the concern is staff making dog contacts, such training can include tactical approaches, eg the appropriate way to approach a strange dog; danger signs to look for in behaviour (for example, where there is more than one dog in the premises and they appear to acting as a pack) and, finally, how to minimise the risk of attack if it should come to that, such as safe exit strategies. Such training can also increase staff awareness to create more dynamic risk assessments;, eg do not enter a field where mares are nursing their foals and do not assume “friendly” breeds of dog — such as spaniels or poodles — will never bite.

  • Some organisations have issued their staff with humane (and comparatively harmless) devices to discourage dog attacks. These sprays may utilise different approaches, such as high pitched sound, or water, or pepper, or fragrance based substances which are repugnant to dogs. All such devices need to risk assessed and subject to adequate training for staff. However, no device will necessarily stop a dog attack and there are both legal and reputational risks related to injuring or distressing a family pet.

Conclusion

Animals are not generally at the top of the risk priorities for mobile staff. Yet everyone should be aware of the risks that a wide range of creatures — domestic, exotic and even wild animals — can present in the workplace, let alone the reputational risks for an organisation that could arise from animal attacks. Many of these risks can be minimised by simple awareness training and seeking customers’ cooperation to minimise unwanted events.

Last reviewed 9 March 2015