Updated guidance from the Health and Safety Executive addresses the risks of working alone
This article was co-authored by Louise Cheney Lowe, Trainee Solicitor.
The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) updated guidance on lone workers is timely. In March 2020, as the UK was heading into lockdown, with office workers relocating to work from home, “Protecting lone workers – How to manage the risks of working alone” was published.
Who is a ‘lone worker’?
The HSE defines a lone worker as “someone who works by themselves without close or direct supervision”.
Employers’ and employees’ obligations
Under Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 employers have a duty to ensure the health and safety of lone workers as far as is reasonably practicable. Employers must also assess and manage the risks to lone workers under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. These duties apply not only to those who employ lone workers, but also to those who engage them as contractors (including self-employed people).
Employees and some self-employed workers also have their own responsibilities when lone working. They must take reasonable care of themselves and other people affected by their work activities and cooperate with their employers in meeting their legal obligations. If they have specific health and safety concerns relating to their workplace, they should raise these with their employer.
The new HSE guidance
The guidance advises on management of risks to lone workers. This includes the people they may come into contact with, their work environment and equipment used, and the consideration of how certain work activities might trigger incidents. It also refers to ensuring suitable arrangements are in place to provide clear communications where English is not the lone worker’s first language. Furthermore, it gives advice on lone workers with medical conditions or those who have become ill or had an accident. The importance of appropriately training lone workers, as well as providing supervision and monitoring is also referenced, with technological advances leaving no justification for not doing so.
The guidance acknowledges changes in ways of working due to technology and automation, as well as the emergence of new types of workers with people working until they are older and the rise in the ‘gig economy’ (a prevalence of short-term contracts and freelance work). Employers are expected to adapt their approach to health and safety in response to these changes.
The guidance contains three key updates as follows:
- Stress, mental health and wellbeing
Just as with physical health, employers also have an obligation to safeguard the mental health of their employees. Further to the HSE’s latest annual publication of statistics identifying an increase in work-related stress, anxiety and depression in the UK, the guidance recognises the negative impact that lone working can have on employees’ mental health, with effective support being more difficult to achieve.
Employers are encouraged to adopt procedures that allow direct contact between the lone worker and their manager, so that signs of work-related stress can be recognised at an early stage. Keeping in touch with lone workers through regular meetings, including them in work updates, training and social events are all advised. Employers have had to become creative in ensuring inclusion and support for lone workers during the current pandemic, from running weekly team updates over Skype to virtual quizzes. In light of this new guidance, and given the ‘working from home’ culture may continue beyond the pandemic, these are initiatives that in our view it would be sensible to continue.
- Keeping in touch
The guidance identifies how technological advances have made communicating with, and monitoring and keeping in touch with lone workers easier. An organisation’s systems of monitoring should be properly embedded to ensure they are well understood by workers. Additionally, effective means of communication can be ensured by pre-agreed intervals of regular contact, periodic visits from supervisors, systems to track that workers have finished their work and returned home, and the use of alarm-raising devices in emergencies.
- Work-related violence
The guidance recognises that while lone working does not necessarily create a higher risk of violence, the lack of nearby support does make lone workers more vulnerable and less able to prevent incidents from occurring. Those working late evening or early morning shifts when fewer workers are around, and those with authority over customers, particularly where customers are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, are identified as most at risk.
Measures which can be taken to manage the risks include training in personal safety and providing staff with devices designed to raise the alarm.
The HSE adapting its guidance to reflect modern ways of working, is a welcome development. The pandemic has made issues of lone working more relevant than ever, and this recently published HSE guidance provides useful practical measures that employers can adopt. Nevertheless, at the current time, some of the guidance will still need careful thought so that it can be applied and delivered safely in line with social distancing guidance.
It goes without saying that employers will need to review their risk assessments, policies and procedures to ensure compliance as far as practicable. As the situation with COVID-19 and its effect on working evolves, the risks to lone workers will change. Therefore, regular re-assessment of the effectiveness of control measures must take place so that these can be continually improved and updated as changing working practices require.