Lone working: The hazards of being a lone worker

Heather Collins, consultant at SML, Safety Management Limited, explains the changing concerns with regards to lone working. 

The HSE defines a lone worker as ‘someone who works by themselves without close or direct supervision’. Millions of people across the UK are working as a lone worker, some probably without even realising it.

lone workingTraditionally this definition has been used for those who are carrying out more hazardous tasks alone, where the risk that something might go wrong is significant and where if something did go wrong and they had no-one there to help them, they might suffer more serious consequences, simply because they are alone. Examples might include working inside a confined space, working on live electrics, or working with moving machinery. All these require support personnel or systems to be in place to reduce the risk, and if necessary, raise the alarm.

A less traditional definition is where the risk to the lone worker is not so much about the actual task, but about the location or the situation they are in, which could lead to the risk of physical or verbal abuse. The potential for violence has become more prevalent as more people work alone, for example in retail situations, on a garage forecourt, on a night shift, or when locking up premises. Results from the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) for the year ending March 2020, estimated there were 688,000 incidents of violence at work over the previous 12 months.

As an employer, you are responsible for the health, safety, and welfare at work of all your workers, and this includes making an assessment of the risks they face at work, including those posed by simply working alone. In retail, for example, it’s particularly important to consider the times when staff are alone but may still come into contact with the public especially late at night or in isolated premises. Similarly, for the courier delivering alone at night they may be out of contact for long periods. In both these cases it is not the job itself that is risky but the situation.

The issues surrounding lone working are not new, but they have been brought into sharp focus due to the current COVID-19 pandemic and the changes in working patterns this has brought over the past year. For example, the reduction in team members in non-essential businesses, often down to a sole worker, has meant people not used to working alone now finding themselves in a potentially isolating situation.

More significant than this has been the move to having many more people working alone at home. This has shifted the focus from the physical danger of working alone in the workplace to the mental health issues that arise from working at home alone.

Some of those who have been shielding or are defined as extremely clinically vulnerable have effectively been working alone at home since last March, so almost a year of no physical contact with colleagues. A day in the office is a very different experience to a Zoom or Teams call, although these do help, and regular online team and management meetings are very important and not to be discounted. However, it’s not the same as being physically in the office, meeting other people and engaging in conversation, sharing news and general chit chat. Humans are social animals, and we need that interaction for our mental well-being.

Recently we have carried out some remote training via video link for office staff from one of our clients, some of whom have been working at home since March of last year. While the main focus of the training was on how to set up a DSE workstation correctly at home, we also talked about general tips for working safely alone at home. This included how important it is to set a routine, take regular breaks and stay in touch with the team, as well as how to access the help provided via the client’s line management or employee assistance programme if needed.

Lone working is now more often simply working alone and the “aloneness” aspect of it has taken precedence over the work aspect. Traditional types of lone working as defined above are no less important, but there is now an increasing need for employers to consider what they can do to support lone home workers from a mental health perspective.

HSE has broadened its Lone Working page during the pandemic to provide more advice on the subject of home working with details on simple things like how to set up a suitable workstation at home, the importance of keeping in touch and how to recognise and support employees in the early stages of stress.

Employers should consider innovative methods of keeping in touch with those working from home. Setting up social opportunities online, quizzes, fundraising for the local community, sharing useful information such as book and recipe suggestions are all helpful ideas and providing the chance to chat about things outside of work helps people feel more connected.

Regular guidance on mental health to all staff is effective in reminding everyone of the issues, not only on where they can get help but also on how to support each other.  Employers should also consider staff and employee assistance programmes to help support employees who are struggling with their mental health and need to talk to someone in confidence.

COVID-19 has probably changed the way we work forever, and it’s likely that many people will not go back to their office working in the same way as prior to the pandemic. It’s likely that many companies will allow more of a combination of working from home and office, and some may even provide only ‘hot desks’ in future especially in expensive city centre offices. The rapid advancements of smartphones, tablets, and laptops, with easy to access apps, and the continuing progress of technology in general, all helps in making lone workers less vulnerable and helping them to feel more connected.

Whether your workforce includes the keyholder at a retail outlet, shelf stackers on the night shift, the lone delivery driver, a graphic designer, or the company accountant now working at home, there will be more lone workers in all our businesses. Make sure your Health and Safety Risk Assessment is up to date for lone working and fit to take your company forward as we move out of lockdown into what will surely prove to be a different way of working for us all.