Last reviewed 5 October 2015

At work or in transit, being a lone worker makes the risk of accidents, injuries or unpleasant incidents more daunting. National Personal Safety Day focuses on mitigating the risks of solitude. Jon Herbert explores how sound health and safety practices can make life very different for many people.

Time spent safely alone is often a luxury — having the house to yourself for a few hours can be bliss. Yet many people forced to work alone in situations that they struggle to control are vulnerable.

Fortunately, by following the right rules and adopting safe habits, we can de-risk not only work but also many other situations in life where being alone ramps up the dangers.

Not all risks involve objective dangers and physical injuries. The mental and emotional stresses of working without the immediate support of co-workers can be equally damaging. Without knowing how to prepare thoroughly, many people unintentionally run into difficulties.

Technology can also be double-edged. Remote working is a growing phenomenon of the digital age which frequently forces us to become less dependent on direct physical contact. However, instant communication and access to real-time information can shrink the virtual working environment back to manageable proportions, if we know how to plan ahead carefully.

With good training, greater awareness, sound management, regular monitoring and proper emergency planning, it is possible to be alone and not really alone simultaneously in today’s world.

Keep It REAL

National Personal Safety Week is an annual event organised by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust. The charity’s aim is to ensure that everyone in the community is fully aware of their own safety and has positive practical guidance to make them feel protected and more comfortable.

This year, the Trust is focusing on the problems young men face through its “Keep It REAL” campaign: R = Ready; E = Educated; A = Alert; L = Legal. The 2015 emphasis is on awareness, preparation and responsible reactions in modern Britain.

The campaign themes are directly relevant to the working environment. Many solitary workers who meet the public face confrontation and possibly violence in their day-to-day work, eg estate agents who spend a lot of their time meeting strangers and showing them round empty properties; teachers; public sector workers; receptionists; retail staff; workers such as health workers who visit clients in their own homes; or people such as beauticians who see clients in their own homes.

Another daunting prospect for many people is working alone in unfamiliar circumstances after becoming voluntarily self-employed, or following enforced redundancy, corporate rationalisations or downsizing.

Others are pushed into solitary work on a temporary or long-term basis when colleagues become ill, budgets are squeezed, competitive-pressures grow, or through working shifts.

Know your rights, risks and responsibilities

Employers have strict legal duties to lone-workers. They must carry out full risk assessments and implement strategies that guarantee a safe working environment. Lone workers are entitled to all the resources, training and information they need, backed by procedures for responding quickly to accidents.

Employers’ basic responsibilities are laid down in the Health and Safety, etc Act 1974. Further regulations were added by the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to assess risks that include fire, identify vulnerable groups, consult employees, and cross-reference with other employees on whose property an employee may work.

Employee duties were defined under the 1974 Act, and again in 1999, as taking reasonable care for their own health and safety, plus that of other people they may affect, and to co-operate with employers.

Technology’s march

As with all aspects of industry and business, the continuous development of technology, data-handling and the extended power of big data can add to demands made of lone-workers.

Technology is increasingly integrating the control and management of geographically separated plants. It is revolutionising the use of personnel , materials and energy resources. Once people feared home-working. Now many welcome the option of talking to key customers in Australia while still wearing their dressing-gown!

However, while taking the drudgery out of many traditional jobs, instantaneous access to information leaves many workers feeling isolated in centralised response centres where they expected to shoulder large responsibilities in less stimulating environments.

Technology is also redefining plant inspection and maintenance. Operational data can now be logged in routinely around large sites — coincidentally confirming the location and wellbeing of operatives.

Where the human element is still essential, “ruggedized” mobile reporting systems allow scheduled plant checks to be made accurately in real-time on site. Meanwhile, digital information, and the use of CCTV and remote monitoring systems, has devolved many functions to the centralised control room with its greater creature comforts.

The compensation is the convenience and security offered by modern communications and online backup systems. Lone operators may be more physically isolated but have stronger online support.

There is now also a wide variety of personal safety devices which can track workers’ locations, activate a discrete SOS, and allow the alarm receiving centre to listen in to the situation and communicate with the workers. Similarly apps such as Crystal Ball or Guardian24 can be downloaded onto any mobile phone and feature GPS updates, visit logs, check-ins and panic alarm functionality.

Mobile shift workers

For many people the technology revolution has gone a step further still and redefined their role as not only shift workers but mobile shift workers.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) definition of mobile, or peripatetic, workers is “someone who works at a variety of locations and travels between them”. Conventionally, this has included forestry and agricultural works, rent collectors, sales personnel, service engineers, health and social workers, plus staff receiving off-site training or attending conferences. How times have changed!

Employers’ duties remain largely the same over a wider range of job designations, with the caveat that anyone “hosting” a mobile worker assumes additional duties for their care. It is also important for employers to employ people who understand the job from both a physical and psychological perspective.

Mobile workers themselves have an additional responsibility for their own reasonable health and safety, plus that of other people who might be affected by their activities. They must also report any health and safety concerns to the most appropriate manager.

Mobile workers at particularly high risk include young, disabled and overseas workers, plus those carrying cash, high-value goods or medical supplies. Where risks cannot be eliminated, they must be minimised or marginalised.

Shift and mobile shift workers often work irregular hours at night or in the early morning when the body clock is disturbed. Sleep deprivation is a hazard. Over-lapping shift workers often need to share information at a time when very few people are at their best.

As a general guide, the forward-rotation of staff is considered to be less fatiguing. This is where, if a worker works a morning shift, their next shift is in the afternoon and then evening, as it has been proved that circadian rhythms adjust better when moving ahead than back.

Controls play a significant part too. Formal controls to ensure a safe work place and the safe use of procedures are essential. This is particularly important where specific hazards exist relating to driving, vehicle and equipment use, or adverse environmental conditions. Attention to individual locations, including peoples’ homes, is vital, as is due regard for equipment.

In a business culture where many people are now specialists or career-orientated, an increasing number of lone workers are expected to take on more responsibilities for their own and each other’s health, safety and wellbeing.

Fortunately, plenty of support is available.