The risk of employees working in isolated positions is all too apparent when newspaper headlines report serious accidents that become fatal, because help is not at hand. Yet, even for lone workers that suffer injuries, the road to normality and returning to work, can be a lengthy process.
Lone working can create a variety of risks, which companies must effectively manage. Businesses face hefty fines, legal prosecution, and reputational damage if they do not follow guidelines to create a safe working environment.
Sadly, serious cases are not uncommon; a security guard on a construction site died from carbon monoxide poisoning and a water employee drowned after falling into a treatment works. In all these cases, businesses must consider what they could have done to prevent the accident occurring or what tools they could have to enable them to quickly react to an incident.
Returning to lone working
For those fortunate enough to survive a serious accident whilst working alone, the road to recovery can be tough. Often assistance is required to recover to health, and additional support needed for resuming work. If an employee is located some distance away from the rest of the business, organising this support can be tricky.
Because of the nature of the job or location, lone workers are more likely to be dropped back in at the deep end on their return to work, as it is often difficult to offer the standard phased return. In addition, the employer is relying on the individual themselves to monitor and feedback their progress and complete home risk assessments, which is not objective.
The lone worker can face a variety of physical and mental risks in returning to work. Loneliness is common with limited peer and manager interaction or support. Their working environment, whether fixed-site or mobile, needs to be reassessed to ensure that it is appropriate to commence work. This should consider the risk of accidents, illness, thefts, or driving incidents.
The suitability of the role during recovery must also be reviewed. Is it customer facing? Are there additional vulnerabilities that should be considered? Is there risk of violence, threats or abuse?
Managing these risks is essential to support the lone worker in their recovery. Retraining might be considered, as well as temporary measures to assist the worker. During this period supervision should be increased, with clear, agreed guidelines about the worker’s role.
Going back too early can make the injury worse, leading to longer periods of absence. It also increases the risk for the business, as the employee might not be able to perform their role safely leading to further incidents.
The rehabilitation period is important, and businesses must recognise the unique risks faced by lone workers.
Creating a safe lone worker environment
Companies must fulfil their legal requirements for lone workers and support them to effectively do their role with minimal risk. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) offers guidance to business for lone working.
It focuses on three core elements:
- Assessment of risks; from violence, medical influences, or workplace environment.
- Training and experience level; how can the individual be supervised?
- Systems to keep in touch and monitor workers; how can you know what is happening?
As much as businesses can do risk assessments and put procedures or training in place to reduce the likelihood of accidents, they inevitably will occur from time-to-time. The employer responsibility is to ensure that employees have a method to alert for help.
Following an event, providing support mechanisms for the recovery of a lone worker is just as critical as introducing risk management procedures in the first place. Lone workers returning from an injury, need the same, if not more, support as any other employee in the company.
The business risk of lone worker accidents is significant. Companies can suffer the loss of an employee life, as well as significant fines, criminal investigation and damage to your reputation. The death of a fellow worker also has deep repercussions for the rest of the workforce.
It is your legal responsibility to analyse and solve any health and safety risks prior to any individual working alone. Lone workers face unique risks which must be considered separately, as these employees should not be at any more risk than any other employee.
If accidents do occur, businesses must have in place an effective plan to help support a lone worker to full recovery. The road can be long, but rush and further repercussions will follow.