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All alone? The plight of vulnerable workers. By Annie Hayes

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Help for lone workers

Suzy Lamplugh, the estate agent that went missing in 1986 following an appointment with a ‘Mr Kipper’, is the best known example of the dangers that can face lone workers. Annie Hayes reports on the plight of vulnerable workers.


Types of workers

Lone workers mean staff that either regularly or occasionally work on their own, and without access to immediate support from managers or other colleagues. Other descriptions commonly used include community or outreach workers.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) the types of workers we are looking at include: sales, service engineers, estate agents, insurance staff, electrical engineers, environment inspectors, bus drivers, educational psychologists, midwives, police officers, community mental health staff, council housing services, security guards, customer service officers, taxi drivers, shop workers, social workers, personal care assistants, claims inspectors and financial advisors. The list is by no means exhaustive.

Patrick Dealtry, chairman of the British Standards Institute committee, which is developing a lone worker standard, says that it is often the workers that are sent out to the community that are in danger: “In terms of NHS staff we’re often looking at those that go to visit people in their homes, nurses and workers seeing council tenants, for example.”

And according to the HSE, the problems of lone workers is being more readily felt because the numbers are increasing. The spread of factory automation, outplacement, sub-contracting and teleworking is boosting the numbers.

Chappell and Di Martino, 2000 said: “In addition, the combined push of increased mobility and the development of interactive communication technologies encourage the development of one-person operations. As well as those who work alone for the majority of their working time, there is a greater number of people who work alone part of the time.”

The dangers

The estimated number of incidents of violence experienced by workers in England and Wales was 655,000 in 2004/05.

Nursing, one of the most endangered professions, saw 3377 separate assaults on nurses working within the health service in Northern Ireland alone. This accounts for over half of the overall annual total of 6010 attacks on health staff, an increase from 5382 in 2005-2006, and compares with totals of 140 assaults on ambulance workers and 107 on doctors.

A survey just published by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) shows that a third of nurses have been assaulted in the last two years, whilst more than half felt that the risk of abuse when working alone had risen.

“I was requested to make a visit to an elderly lady post hospital discharge six miles into a forest. The lady’s son answered the door with a blank facial expression and I had to walk along a hallway with pistols, shotguns, swords, knives, daggers and machetes. I felt very frightened and uncomfortable.”

A district nurse

Whilst these statistics give a good idea of the levels of danger we are talking about, a true picture is hard to come by as many incidents go unreported. According to the RCN only 45 per cent of verbal assaults were reported to managers and only 86 per cent of physical assaults.

“A lot of it is verbal abuse which can be very upsetting,” remarks Dealtry. “Some of it involves physical violence. One employee returned to their car and was faced with a man and two guns but it’s not always when workers are alone. There was a case recently in which a teacher was threatened by a man that came into her classroom. Birmingham Council awarded £330,000 in compensation.”

A district nurse shows just how frightening attacks can be: “I was requested to make a visit to an elderly lady post hospital discharge six miles into a forest. The lady’s son answered the door with a blank facial expression and I had to walk along a hallway with pistols, shotguns, swords, knives, daggers and machetes. I felt very frightened and uncomfortable.”

Duty of care

In terms of how the law protects vulnerable and lone workers, Frances Strickley, an associate at legal firm Thomas Eggar LLP, says that employers are under general duties with regards to health and safety, but there are no specific duties in respect of lone workers.

The broad duties that are implied fall under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. This legislation requires an employer to identify the hazards of the work, assess the risks involved and put measures in place to avoid or control the risks.

“A risk assessment must be carried out,” says Strickley. “This should consider whether the worker should be working alone in the first place. Where a risk assessment shows that it is not possible for the work to be done safely by a lone worker, arrangements for providing help or back-up should be put in place and the right level of supervision should be considered. Other risks to consider are the type of workplace, whether the person is medically fit and suitable to work alone (seek medical advice if necessary), whether the worker is in a category that may be more at risk e.g. young, female, as well as the normal risks at work and in emergencies.”

Strickley explains that what this equates to is ensuring that lone workers are not put at any more risk than any other worker. Once a risk assessment has been carried out, control measures should be implemented.

“Consideration should be given to instruction, training, supervision and protective equipment. Training will involve how to deal with situations including emergency situations, to identify hazards and how to avoid them and to fully understand risks and precautions including when to stop working. Employers should also try to ensure that workers are competent enough to deal with unusual or new circumstances beyond that which they have been trained on.”

It is no good just putting the policies in place and hoping the rest will take care of itself, warns Strickley. Part of the process, she says, is consulting the workers about what they consider the risks to be and how they believe those risks can be prevented.

Many employers are going down the route of offering devices including panic buttons, alarms and mobile phones. Strickley says: “Procedures should be put in place to monitor lone workers including considering regular contact, warning devices and alarms. Employers should also bear in mind specific specialist legislation in some circumstances, for example using hazardous substances, VDU use and that they are under duty to provide facilities for first aid.”

“Employers should also bear in mind specific specialist legislation in some circumstances, for example using hazardous substances, VDU use and that they are under duty to provide facilities for first aid.”

Frances Strickley, associate, Thomas Eggar LLP.

Dealtry is looking at personal alarms, intruder alarms and CCTV as tools in the fight against lone worker attacks.

Approximately two-thirds of respondents in the RCN survey thought that a mobile device disguised as an ID card holder, together with 24/7 monitoring and training, would increase their confidence to work alone. However, Dealtry says that the 999 function should always be the first port of call in raising an alarm.

Common sense also plays its part. Take taxi drivers, one of the key risks is from robbers – drivers that use a decoy money bag and store the real money elsewhere are more likely to stay safe, as are those that activate deadlocks in known violent areas and fit their cabs with panic alarms.

Communication is also vital. Setting out acceptable levels of behaviour before abuse occurs is always preferable. Tesco is working with retail union Usdaw to combat abusive shoppers by placing posters in every store warning customers that staff have the right to work in a safe environment.

It is clear that the risks for lone workers can be high – legislation does exist to protect workers but the rising levels of reported incidents is a measure that this alone is not sufficient in protecting these types of employee.

Whilst technology helps combat the problems, the NHS makes the point that it can only be effective if it works in conjunction with risk assessment, clear procedures, sharing of information and training.

One Response

  1. Suzy Lamplugh Trust’s Work
    The Suzy Lamplugh Trust is the only UK charity entirely devoted to providing everyone in society with the practical support and personal safety guidance they need to reduce their fear of crime and develop skills and strategies for keeping themselves safe. We have been working to this end for the last 21 years, since Suzy went missing.

    We work in the community as well as offering workplace training and resources to raise awareness of personal safety and help people develop strategies for staying safe. We should be considered an authority on personal safety as well as a key resource for readers of HR Zone. http://www.suzylamplugh.org

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