Supporting lone workers
Remote working is likely to be a lasting legacy of the pandemic. Traditionally more associated with roles such as postal workers, drivers or engineers, the scope of lone working roles is now vast. Supporting lone workers is now much more important for employers.
Lone workers are defined by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) as employees who perform an activity that is carried out in isolation from other workers, with no close or direct supervision. The HSE has regulatory authority in the area. This is because lone working exposes staff to risks if there is no-one available to assist when a problem arises.
Managing health at home
What can businesses do to support the wellbeing, health and safety of employees working alone?
As with most areas of Health & Safety, the primary responsibility of the employer is to assess the risks involved in any role or activity. If any risks are identified (such as the risks of violence, stress or medical suitability for lone working) steps must be taken to mitigate the risks.
The HSE is clear that working remotely can cause work-related stress and affect an employee’s mental health. The HSE has also produced Stress Management Standards that employers must adhere to. This places an obligation on employers to put procedures in place to assess medical suitability for remote working, as well as to monitor employee’s health for any signs of stress.
How to identify medical risks
It is not difficult to assess medical suitability for remote working and it does not necessarily require medical input.
Although there are risks to asking employees about health-related topics (because employees may feel discriminated against on health grounds) this does not mean there are no easy options for employers.
In principle, asking employees to self-declare any health issues, concerns or disabilities (but without asking for the specific nature of the issue) is perfectly reasonable.
For example, an online form or questionnaire with the question “Do you have a health condition or disability that may affect your ability to work remotely?” with a “Yes/No” answer would identify risks, but without any risk of perceived discrimination in the future.
Seeking independent advice from occupational health would be advised if anyone indicates “yes” on a response. This does not need to be an expensive process.
Online questionnaires assessing the risks with the answers reviewed by an occupational health practitioner are not expensive (they are usually around £25) and fully cover an employer’s legal duties.
High risk work
There are specific risks and medical steps needed to reduce risks for those who work in confined spaces, at heights, with machinery or in risky environments (like underwater). Employers have a duty to take robust steps in these areas and professional medical advice is essential.
However, the same duties and responsibilities still exist for office workers who may be working from home.
Working from home
Employers have the same health and safety responsibilities for homeworkers and exactly the same liability for accident or injury as for any other workers.
The HSE is clear that employers must provide supervision, education and training for homeworkers. Employers must also implement control measures to protect the homeworker.
The HSE has free guidance for employers to help support homeworkers, which is essential reading.
The HSE also places an obligation on employers to ensure workers from overseas (when English may not be a first language) have received and understood the information and training they need about how to work safely.
Simple steps to consider
In addition to normal work-related risks, the extra dangers posed to those who work on their own must be carefully considered and addressed by employers.
Usually, businesses opt for enhanced risk assessments. In this way, workers are properly informed and taught how to deal with various risks.
A Standard Operating Procedure record or manual can also be helpful for workers. Even a single page summary can mitigate legal risks.
Medical and other emergencies
In case of an emergency, it is important to consider how easy it would be for one person to evacuate from the location and to check if first aid kits are available for minor injuries.
Businesses should assess the risk of exposure to violence and aggression and provide suitable protection equipment, such as a panic alarm or sprays. This is particularly relevant for lone workers where contact with the public may be possible, for example, receptionists or retail staff at isolated locations (like petrol stations).
Agreeing and recording contact times and check-in methods every shift is a very easy way to demonstrate the risk has been mitigated.
Providing telephone numbers for mental health support (like Employee Assistance Programmes) and access to advice on maintaining their mental and physical wellbeing are simple steps to record for home workers too.
Training records with employees’ signatures are a very easy way to show that workers have been properly informed of what is required of them.
The HSE also has free guides about managing lone working risks available for both employers and employees.
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