Every organisation has a legal and moral obligation to protect its lone workers, defined by the Health and Safety Executive as those “who work by themselves without close or direct supervision” (bit.ly/32KjGh3).
Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that up to 25% of the UK workforce undertakes some form of lone working. Despite this, lone workers can be overlooked by managers, leading to a failure to protect their safety, health and wellbeing.
Some sectors are more likely than others to implement control measures to minimise the risk to lone workers. It is well known that in certain public sector organisations, for example, lone workers are more at risk from workplace violence and aggression.
Data from the Crime Survey for England and Wales (bit.ly/2ZbmXDF) suggest there were an estimated 694,000 incidents of violence at work in 2017-18. According to the Labour Force Survey, nine out of every ten workers who were assaulted were public sector staff.
Though the average non-fatal rate of injury due to physical acts of violence at work across all industries is 140 cases per 100,000 workers (0.1% of workers), the rate is statistically significantly higher in each of the three public service industries: public administration and defence, education, and human health and social work activities.
Meanwhile, incidents of violence and aggression towards the emergency services, teachers, social workers, NHS workers, council enforcement and housing staff have increased significantly, according to the trade union Unison (bit.ly/2OvshAV).
Across many sectors, agile workers are carrying more sophisticated equipment, such as smartphones, tablets and laptops, potentially creating targets for theft. Also, political unrest may lead to individuals representing organisations with religious, political or cultural alignments being targeted.
These combined factors highlight the importance of proactively managing the personal safety of lone workers. This involves embedding a workplace safety culture and providing lone worker training to managers to ensure that they are equipped to recognise and manage risks in order to keep staff safe.
A failure to manage staff working alone and keep them safe can have serious consequences such as damaged reputation, poor morale and increased costs through absenteeism, compensation and fines. The two case studies (see boxes) provide an illustration of what can happen when managers fail to put effective safeguards in place.
CMA Training recently surveyed a large, UK-wide housing association to find out the impact managers can have on staff safety. Participants included frontline housing officers who worked alone and interacted with tenants, often in tenants’ homes. They covered vast geographical areas, dealing with challenging and confrontational situations, and rarely saw their colleagues or line managers.
On 5 June 2015 a female lone worker was sexually assaulted, beaten and left for dead while alone at a Ladbrokes betting shop in Leicester (bit.ly/1TUgLcS). A regular customer was losing money on a gambling machine and asked her to come and look at the machine as he thought something was wrong with it. She left the secure area to check the machine and was grabbed by the assailant and forced into the bathroom at the rear of the building. The worker was only able to raise the alarm by calling the police 30 minutes after the attack. Her assailant was brought to justice and found guilty of attempted murder and sexual assault. Judge Michael Chambers, presiding, described the crimes as “horrendous” and that one aspect of the case had been especially troubling: “How could Ladbrokes ever have allowed a young woman to be working on her own that night?” Judge Chambers concluded: “In my view, Ladbrokes’ actions, in this case, can be viewed as extremely negligent.”
"Research supports the premise that line managers play a pivotal role in developing employee engagement."
Line managers pivotal
The research confirmed the critical role of line managers in protecting lone workers.
The most interesting findings were:
1) Inconsistent management styles and communication strategies: It is evident from interview quotes that, although some lone workers considered their line managers to be highly effective communicators, others felt the opposite. The nature of lone working magnifies the requirement for effective communication, as these employees spend most of their working week away from their base. This includes the communication of lone working policies and procedures. If communication is ineffective, there may be reduced trust and commitment. The implication here is that relationships may be less productive with a higher risk of damage to reputation.
2) Line manager training: Although the housing association has middle management training programmes, this doesn’t appear to cover prioritising the safety of the team. The culture of personal safety in each team was down to the individual line manager. If they felt it was important, the culture was strong. If not, nobody seemed to take it seriously.
3) Differing personal safety cultures across the organisation: Established processes included lone worker policy and procedures; work shadowing and informal mentoring; warning markers on tenant database; informal buddy systems; and incident reporting. However, although there were many processes in place, they were not consistently adhered to. It was not clear how seriously staff, including line managers, took personal safety measures.
4) Existing lone working policies and processes not being followed: Linked to the above point, there was no uniform approach. Personal safety cultures differed depending on the line manager.
5) Geographical distances exacerbate practical implications for lone working: Many of the lone workers are out of the office most of the week, so rarely see their line managers or peers. Although agile working has its benefits, many of those interviewed expressed a certain loneliness and desire for more interaction with the team. This may have implications for their mental health.
6) Relationships matter and affect lone workers’ behaviours, attitudes and intentions: The theme that ran through the research was relationships. Relationships appear to be affected by issues such as communication and management style. The research findings support the premise that the line manager plays a pivotal role in developing employee engagement and that insensitive line management creates disengagement.
7) Lone workers care about intangible benefits, such as recognition and learning and development opportunities: Not one person complained about the salary. However, all the lone workers commented on the lack of recognition. The strongest comments concerned the lack of external training. It was clear that they all wanted to develop themselves and their skills.
So, what can line managers do to help lone workers feel more supported? Below are some practical, evidence-based recommendations around communication, creating a culture of personal safety, and training and development.
Foster good communication
- The nature of lone working magnifies the requirement for effective communication. This includes the communication of lone working policies, procedures, expectations and support available. If communication is ineffective, there may be reduced trust and commitment.
- Encourage and provide an opportunity for regular two-way communication. Ask lone workers about their preferred method of being managed and communicated with.
- Provide opportunities for lone workers to meet up and share experiences, concerns and successes, thus reducing stress and isolation.
- Use mechanisms to determine and then drive engagement and trust levels. Consider 360-degree feedback and attitudinal surveys. Ensure that you adopt an open-door policy.
- Get to know lone workers at a personal level and recognise that your lone workers may need you to adapt your approach to their style.
- Initiate “safe and well” checks at the end of each day. Call your lone workers occasionally just to ask how they are.
Mental health worker's stabbing
Ashleigh Ewing, a support assistant for Sunderland-based Mental Health Matters, was killed by a service user who had a history of violence and aggression and was known to be mentally unwell.
Ewing was stabbed 39 times in 2010 after being sent to Ronald Dixon’s home with a debtor’s letter ordering him to pay up for a payphone which he had smashed inside the property days earlier, to take the coins from inside.
Mental Health Matters was fined £50,000 for a breach of s 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act, for failing to do all that was reasonably practicable to ensure the safety of one of its employees. A report later also concluded that opportunities had been missed by Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust.
Had staff taken a more “robust” approach to Dixon’s care in the weeks before Ashleigh’s death, it was unlikely that she would have been asked to visit him on her own (bit.ly/2Yzs0ky).
Create a lone worker safety culture
To help create a lone worker safety culture, organisations should consider the following:
- Introduce the organisation's ethos on and approach to safety and lone working at the interview stage. Share your policies and procedures. Ensure that new starters receive appropriate training as part of their induction.
- Get it on your agenda. Cascade monthly personal safety tips in the form of toolbox talks and/or e-learning packages or webinars. Include lone worker safety and wellbeing as a standing item on the team meeting and one-to-one agendas. Promote incident reporting and discuss learning from incidents and near misses at team meetings.
- Encourage and support dynamic risk assessment and a clear “walk away” policy. Remember, how you respond to someone abandoning a task due to their concerns about safety will affect their actions next time.
- If using a lone worker system or safety devices, show trust when checking on lone workers’ use of the system and device to avoid suspicion of micromanagement.
- Provide appropriate and timely post-incident support (whether or not you feel the incident was serious).
- Promote any employee assistance programme. Never forget the impact of an incident on mental health and wellbeing.