Office environments: Alone but safe?

In the case of those working for a local authority the number of job roles which involve lone working can be vast, from customer service representatives working in district offices to housing officers visiting tenants at their properties.

Jane White, research and information services manager for the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), said: “On the whole, people classed as lone workers either work on their own within an establishment or are mobile, working on the road or from home.

“However, some employees may be working alone because they work outside of normal hours or because their circumstances dictate that they need to.”

Employees subject to the most risk are those who have close contact with members of the public, where they may be threatened by abuse or attack. Steve Sumner, chair of the IOSH Public Service Group, said: “More often than not staff who work alone but interface with service users and the public generally face an increased risk of abuse or actual violence because they don’t have the immediate support of colleagues or others, such as security staff if an incident occurs.”

It is often perfectly safe to work alone. The law requires employers to think about and deal with any health and safety risks before people are allowed to work alone. Under the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act, employers have a responsibility for the health safety and welfare of all their employees. They are also responsible for the health and safety of all those affected by their work activities, for example any self-employed people they engage with and visitors such as contractors.

Steve added: “The risks associated with lone working vary depending on a job role. They can be minimal or significant, predictable or unpredictable. Whatever the activity, it’s essential the risks are adequately and appropriately assessed before the it commences.

“Council workers can be particularly at risk when they are delivering bad news for example, regarding the removal of a service previously provided. Clients and their family may get upset and angry and become abusive. Regulatory staff such as environmental health officers and trading standards officers may also be at significant risk especially when visiting premises in the evening. However, other roles such as cleaners working out of hours may be very safe but simply need some way of summoning help should something happen.”

Assess the lone working risks

Employers need to investigate significant hazards faced by the lone worker and assess the risks involved both to them and those affected by their work. However, when the situation escalates and the risks change rapidly the staff at risk should be skilled in using a dynamic risk assessment to enable them to recognise the need to remove themselves from the situation.

Any risk assessment for an employer working alone in an office or in any location should assess whether the conditions they’ll be working in are normal or abnormal, and whether they are hazardous – both in terms of the type of people they face, and the physical conditions of the area such as lighting and office location. Lone workers in local government may have to refuse appointments, reject applications for benefits or generally give bad news that may change a person’s life – all of which can spark emotional reactions that they need to be trained to deal with and diffuse. Staff should also be trained in how to deliver bad news to reduce the risk of angry reactions. 

Jane White said: “It’s vital that the steps any government authority puts in place to safeguard their workforce are kept under constant review. This will involve changing and improving risk assessments to reflect the experiences of the individual, their needs and additional intelligence which may require the assessment to be changed.

“Lone workers need to be provided with extra support to alleviate risks to their health or safety. Employers need to ensure that they’re empowered through training, to equip them with the knowledge of how to deal with hazardous situations should they arise.”

“Group training is an ideal way to share and learn from experiences of this type of work, helping people pool suggestions on the measures that can help to overcome problems. After all, good communication is the most important aspect of looking after lone workers.”

Learning from experience is one of the best ways of avoiding problems in the future, so organisations should not just report incidents and file them away – they should be used to improve lone working policy to avoid similar problems in the future. Encouraging a risk and incident reporting culture is important, and collecting information from other stakeholders who witnessed or dealt with incidents should provide key information for strategy in the future.

Communication - A key role
Communication plays a key role in protecting lone workers. Steve said: “Managers and colleagues of lone workers must have systems to enable them to know where a lone worker is, what they are doing and if they are working remotely, when they are expected back. If staff are working late in the office then mechanisms should be in place to ensure that the duty building manager is aware they are on site and when they have left the building.

‘Buddy’ systems can be useful as they enable a lone worker to keep in regular touch with another employee. This ‘buddy’ will know the places, times and people that their colleague is coming into contact with and will be able to raise the alarm if an expected call or form of contact is missed.”

Jane said: “IOSH urges companies to adopt sensible control measures that don’t unnecessarily alarm – they must be practical and proportionate. However, employers must remember that technology shouldn’t be used in isolation, or as a substitute for proper training and techniques. It’s an added layer of protection that adds value and can make the difference in a worst case scenario.”

New technology
There are a large number of new technologies available on the market to assist in reducing risks to lone workers. These devices include smart name badges that operate using mobile phone and GPS technology which some employees might find intrusive and computer systems where people regularly log in to show they are safe, starting a chain reaction of emergency procedures if they don’t. Simple things such as speed dial buttons on mobile or desk phones, panic buttons that link to a base or the police or sharing electronic calendars can help reduce risks or summon help more quickly. A panic alarm which sets off a loud noise can also be effective.

However, it is essential to understand that these devices must be considered in addition to robust procedures and not relied upon as the sole solution to the risks posed. Staff may also find training in diffusion techniques useful but they must recognise when it is time to leave or summon assistance.

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