Lone workers | The risks and how to combat them

When it comes to managing health and safety risk, out of sight should definitely not be out of mind.

If you have workers whose role involves working by themselves, without close or direct supervision, the element of risk is elevated, both from the perspective of responding to accidents that occur and being vulnerable to opportunist violence.

So what are some of the risks associated with lone working, and what control measures should employers consider to minimise these dangers? In this article, we walk you through your legal responsibilities as an employer and some practical ways to meet them.

Who is a lone worker?

According to the Office for National Statistics, up to 25% of the UK workforce undertakes some form of lone working. This includes those who:

  • Work alone in fixed establishments, such as shops, petrol stations or bars;
  • Work in the vicinity of others but are left alone for long periods of time, such as carers, factory workers and warehouse staff;
  • Work alone outside normal hours, such as cleaners, security staff, and maintenance workers;
  • Conduct home visits or travel off site for work, such as GPs, consultants or home service engineers; and
  • Are service workers, such as delivery workers, estate agents or sales representatives.

The risks involved in each of these cases will be different; for example, delivery workers may become targets of theft; retail or healthcare workers may fall victim to violence, and maintenance workers may suffer a fall from height or other injury while unsupervised.

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of workers undertake some form of lone working

What does the law say?

Working alone is not in itself against the law, and in many cases, it will be safe for staff to do so. However, under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act (HSWA) 1974, employers have a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees, as well as any contractors or self-employed people undertaking work for them.

More specifically, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 requires employers to carefully assess the risks associated with working unsupervised and to implement sensible precautions to reduce these risks.

Section 7 of the HSWA also places a duty on workers to take reasonable care of themselves, co-operate with their employer in meeting their legal obligations, and use tools and other equipment properly, in accordance with any relevant safety instructions and training they have been given. In this respect, keeping lone workers safe should be a joint effort, and employers should work with lone-working staff to find effective solutions and promote safe working practices.

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What do I need to do?

If staff are expected to work alone, whether on or off site, it’s vital that you conduct a lone working risk assessment to better understand the risks involved and put control measures in place. Within this, you should detail:

  • The activity or task they will undertake;
  • The hazards or risks this presents;
  • Who may be harmed;
  • The controls you have in place;
  • The likelihood of these risks occurring given your existing controls, and the severity of harm posed if they did (depending on how each activity scores for likelihood/severity, you can then prioritise the tasks that pose the highest risk and therefore require the most urgent attention); and
  • The additional controls required to keep risk to a minimum.

All lone-working activities must be suitably assessed prior to undertaking to ensure control measures are effective. You should also share the findings of your lone-working risk assessment with staff so that they are aware of the steps that have been taken to keep them safe, the role they play, and how to raise the alarm should an incident occur.

What is a lone-working policy?

Every organisation needs a lone-working policy to raise awareness of lone-working risk and inform lone workers about how risks will be managed.

Using your risk assessment as a basis, your policy should:

  • Outline your organisation’s dedication to meeting your legal requirements;
  • Explain who the policy applies to (for example, does your policy only refer to those leaving the office to carry out home visits, or does it include those working late in the office alone?);
  • Include the findings of your risk assessment and the arrangements in place to protect employees;
  • Identify who is accountable and the roles and responsibilities for ensuring the policy is implemented;
  • Provide practical advice and instruction on how to safely work alone; and
  • Outline how and when workers are expected to report a hazard or incident.

If you have a number of lone workers carrying out different roles, it may be necessary to create several policies based on the worker’s specific job role, location and lone worker type.

You should revisit your lone-working policy regularly, and always review it after accidents or incidents, to ensure it remains effective.

What practical measures should I consider?

Depending on the activity in question and the particular risks identified, there are a number of steps employers can take to protect lone workers from harm. These include:

  1. Check that lone workers have no medical conditions that make them unsuitable for working alone. In some cases, this may entail seeking medical advice.

  2. If the worker’s role involves working off site, ensure you have access to their schedule so that you know where they will be going and when they are expected to return. Consider using a system that allows workers to log their location for full visibility.

3. Provide mobile phones and charging devices and encourage workers to check in regularly with their managers (and vice versa), especially if plans change.

4. If the worker’s role involves meeting with businesses associates, clients or members of the public in an office setting, safeguard against the risk of violence by setting the room out so that the worker is positioned closest to the door and making sure that their exit route is not blocked. If possible, have staff hold meetings in public places.

5. Provide personal safety awareness training, including training on dealing with violence and aggression, so that staff understand the risks involved in lone working, how to protect themselves, and how to respond to reasonably foreseeable situations. Line managers should also be trained in effective communication and ways to monitor and support their team. 

6. To reduce the risk of theft, ensure valuables are not left on show and encourage staff to keep the amount of cash carried on them to a minimum.

7. If the worker’s role involves driving, encourage them to take sensible precautions such as planning their route, keeping doors locked at all times, and always parking in well-lit areas, as close to their destination as possible.

9. Always risk-assess high-risk activities as some tasks may be too difficult or dangerous to be carried out alone. For example, if a chemical comes into contact with a person’s eye, they may require immediate assistance from a second person. If risk assessment determines that it is not possible for the work to be conducted safely by a lone worker, don’t chance it – make arrangements to provide help or supervision.

10. Establish emergency procedures for all foreseeable emergencies, including fire, accidents arising out of the work, sudden illnesses, physical violence from members of the public and/or intruders, and equipment failure. Provide training on these procedures so that lone workers and those responsible for monitoring them understand how to respond correctly in each scenario.

Ultimately, if it is possible to avoid the need for lone working by changing arrangements, providing supervision or planning shifts to avoid workers being left alone, then you should do so.

Final thoughts

While they may not be directly in your eyeline, it’s vital that lone workers aren’t overlooked and that employers treat their health, safety and wellbeing with the same importance as any other worker. It’s also important to remember that there are specific risks involved with lone working, such as violence, that won’t necessarily be accounted for by your General Risk Assessment.

With that in mind – and considering the serious consequences of failing to manage staff working alone, including costly fines, absenteeism, reputational damage and decreased morale – creating a positive lone-working safety culture from day one and proactively implementing suitable and sufficient control measures is essential.

Need a helping hand?

At Ellis Whittam, we help organisations across the UK to create safe working environments and operate compliantly through sensible risk-reducing measures.

Our qualified Health & Safety Consultants provide competent support with all aspects of health and safety management, including lone working arrangements. If you employ lone workers, we can provide practical advice, risk-assess your activities and put in any further controls which may be required, and create a tailored Health & Safety Policy that includes best-practice procedures for lone working.

Click here for more information on our fixed-fee service or call 0345 226 8383 to talk through your requirements and how we can help.