Health and safety: lone workers

You’ll never work alone

14 February 2017

Don Cameron looks at the responsibilities of businesses to employees who work on their own

Lone workers come in many different guises. With new Sentencing Council guidelines for duty of care breaches in force since February 2016, it has never been more pertinent for employers to widen their definition of 'lone worker' and understand the risks such employees face on a daily basis.

Being a lone worker does not necessarily mean working in complete isolation. While the term is commonly associated with anyone working away from other colleagues, lone workers may operate in highly populated areas or alongside clients and customers. They may only spend part of their day alone, perhaps while travelling between meetings or working out of earshot of other people on a site.

These employees are sometimes referred to as accidental lone workers, and they are a group that is not always considered under lone working policies; but as legislation and sentencing evolves, it is wise for employers to take a closer look at their entire workforce and their working patterns to check that everyone is covered.

Pinpointing the risks

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE)’s Health and Safety Statistics: Annual Report for Great Britain 2014/15 surveyed workplaces employing 5 or more staff, and revealed the risk factors most commonly cited by employees. The biggest was dealing with difficult customers, patients and pupils (cited by 65% of respondents), which the HSE has highlighted as a potential risk in terms of threats and violence towards employees. Physical risks – including lifting or moving objects (59%), handling chemical or biological substances (52%), repetitive movements and slips (50%) and trips and falls (49%) – make up the majority of the other risks.

Being a lone worker does not increase the likelihood of the majority of these risks outlined – although employees are more vulnerable when dealing with difficult people alone – but it does mean that, if an incident occurs, there is no one else on hand to de-escalate the situation or summon help.

What the law says

There are a number of steps that could reduce the chances of an incident occurring and the severity of the outcome

The health and safety obligations in England and Wales are fairly comprehensive and place a reasonable burden on companies and their directors with regard to the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees. The main obligations can be found in the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.

Section 2 of the 1974 Act places a duty on every employer to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees. Under the regulations, employers also need to make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to the employees while at work as well as devise and implement the appropriate arrangements for the planning, organisation, control, monitoring and review of the preventative and protective measures.


A breach of any of the statutory obligations will constitute a criminal offence on the part of the company, leaving it open to a range of sanctions, including large fines. Individuals will also be liable where the company is found guilty of a health and safety offence, and that offence was committed with the consent or connivance of, or was attributable to any neglect on the part of, the director or manager.

Those convicted could receive fines, face imprisonment or be disqualified from being a company director.

Furthermore, company directors and the company itself can both be convicted for manslaughter, with the company subject to an unlimited fine and directors possibly sentenced to imprisonment. An organisation will be guilty where:

  • the way in which its activities are managed or organised caused the death
  • the person’s death is the result of a gross breach of a relevant duty of care owed to the deceased
  • the way in which senior management handled or arranged the organisation’s activities is a substantial element of the breach.

In the case of health and safety breaches, juries will consider whether guidance has been taken into account, as well as how much attitudes and practices were to blame.

An individual may be guilty of manslaughter where the breach of their duty of care was so grossly negligent that the defendant can be deemed to have had such disregard for the life of the deceased that the conduct is seen as criminal and deserving punishment. This has also been found in practice to include the failure to provide a suitable health and safety system.

Fulfilling your duty

As an employer, how can you protect your employees who work or travel alone and ensure you adhere to your duty of care?

There are a number of steps that could be taken in order to reduce both the chances of an incident occurring and the severity of the outcome.

Risk assessment and policy

Risk assessments should be carried out before and after lone workers enter their field of operation in order to ascertain whether it is safe to send them out alone, as well as underpinning the development of a policy for dealing with potential risks.

Talk to line managers, too, who are closer to the day-to-day working patterns and think outside traditional lone working roles. Are there other employees who could be vulnerable?

A blanket lone worker policy is rarely sufficient. Policies on dealing with risk should be tailored to each individual lone working task, including travel.

Employee training

Training can be extremely helpful in providing lone workers with an understanding of the risks they face and how to deal with them. Whether it concerns the safe operation of a piece of machinery or de-escalating an uncomfortable client situation, there are many training programmes that can be tailored to your individual business needs.

Lone worker monitoring

As part of the company’s lone worker policy, the employer may choose to implement a monitoring system. While many businesses already operate a ‘buddy’ or check-in system, monitoring solutions – such as tracking devices, panic buttons and apps – can provide both a reliable and time-effective solution for lone worker safety.

Although monitoring will not prevent accidents or incidents, it is extremely effective in limiting the severity of a situation by providing immediate contact and allowing for a much quicker emergency response time.

Man down! Lone worker safety in action

One company that has recognised the risks to its lone workers and has taken steps to protect them is Coombes Forestry. Staff at Coombes, who are employed on arboricultural projects for organisations including the Forestry Commission and Crown Estates, are often required to undertake work at height and to use potentially dangerous machinery.

The better to meet their duty of care to their employees and monitor their safety accurately while they work, Coombes has launched a smartphone app that staff can use to alert their employer if they need assistance. Coombes is also able to monitor real-time employee location and safety status in an online hub.

The app offers a wide range of functions including a panic button, working session expiry, GPS tracking, inactivity and duress alerts. If an employee activates the app’s panic button or fails to check in, alerts are automatically triggered on screen and via text and email, allowing Coombes to take immediate action.

Kim Bedford at Coombes explains:

'StaySafe is a powerful app that has been quickly adopted by our staff as they carry smartphones already. We now get an alert if an employee has been inactive for a period of time and if we cannot get hold of them we can start procedures to check on their wellbeing immediately. This early indication that something might be wrong can provide us with vital time to get help to an employee who may have had an accident but is unable to signal for help.'

Don Cameron is CEO of StaySafe

Further information

This feature is taken from the RICS Land journal (December 2016/January 2017)