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Some roles inevitably involve at least an aspect of working alone, and most employees within those roles accept this. Employers should not, however, undervalue the risks that lone working can pose to the health and safety of its employees. With the COVID-19 pandemic highlighting the pressures of different working practices, all organisations should review their policies and procedures in light of the Health and Safety Executive’s updated guidance.
Employers have an obligation under section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to ensure the health and safety of their employees so far as is reasonably practicable. This extends to all employees and contractors, regardless of whether they are based in an office or a lone worker.
A lone worker is typically considered to be an individual that is either not directly supervised or works independently. Some roles have always involved at least an element of lone working, such as maintenance workers, security guards and care workers. As technology improves and attitudes change, increasing numbers of typically office-based workers are choosing to work from home – a type of lone worker employers should not neglect to consider. Importantly, the Health and Safety Executive (‘HSE’) also consider volunteers carrying out work on their own for charities or voluntary organisations (for example, by fundraising or litter picking) to be lone workers.
The HSE makes clear in its guidance that it expects employers to consider and put measures in place to mitigate the health and safety risks to lone workers before such work begins. This does not necessitate that employers must carry out a separate risk assessment for lone working; however, lone working should be considered in an organisation’s general risk assessment and measures to control, remove or mitigate the risks should be put in place. If a number of its employees work alone, an organisation may also wish to put in place a lone working policy.
The HSE’s guidance “Protecting Lone Workers – How to Manage the Risks of Working Alone”, which can be found here, covers the key points to consider in relation to lone working. This guidance has recently been updated to account for, amongst other things, the increasing focus of employees' mental health.
Summary of the Key Updates
- Keeping in touch - The HSE reiterated that there is now the technology in place to ensure effective communication with and monitoring of lone workers. Organisations must ensure that these measures are embedded and ensure that they are rigorously applied. Measures suggested in the guidance include on-site supervisions, measures to track that a lone worker has finished their tasks for the day and the provision of communications equipment to be used in an emergency.
- Mental health – It is essential to recognise that employers have an obligation to ensure both the physical and the mental health of their employees. Lone workers are particularly at risk in relation to their mental health due to isolation and potentially a lack of support and camaraderie for their manager and colleagues. Further, without being able to visibly monitor an individual, it can be difficult to identify if they are suffering from workplace stress, exposing organisations to potential enforcement action and civil liability. The guidance advises that a clear method of contact is established, and that contact remains regular. Interestingly, the guidance also specifically indicates that efforts should be made to include lone workers in social activities. During the current pandemic, employers will have to think of new ways to ensure inclusion and support for lone workers.
- Violence at work – Often lone workers are not inherently more at risk of certain incidents occurring. The concerns instead arise from the fact that they often cannot call on support quickly enough to prevent an incident from occurring. Measures taken may include providing personal safety training to lone workers or providing them with equipment so that they can easily raise the alarm.
Organisations should review their risk assessments, policies and procedures in light of the updated guidance from the HSE. Clear lines of communication must be established both for day-to-day situations and emergencies.
The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a dramatic increase in home working and in turn, many organisations have had to quickly undertake a review of the operational measures they can take to protect home and lone workers. Throughout the coming months, organisations should review how the risks change and the effectiveness of the control measures in place, looking at how these can be improved and consolidated in the longer term.
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