There’s no doubt that working alone can be a risky business. High profile cases have highlighted just how fraught with danger being a lone worker can be.
Earlier this year, a report concluded that 22-year-old mental health worker Ashleigh Ewing should not have been working alone when she was stabbed to death by a paranoid schizophrenic patient in Newcastle.
In another case in Scotland, gamekeeper Douglas Armstrong died after he crashed his quad bike. It was 52 hours before anyone noticed he was missing because there was no system for him to report in at the end of a shift and he didn’t have a mobile phone to call for help.
But, perhaps the best known case of a lone worker dying in tragic circumstances is that of estate agent Suzy Lamplugh, who disappeared in 1986 after she went to meet a client at an empty house.
To this day, her body has never been found. But, her parents were determined that her death would not be in vain and they set up the Suzy Lamplugh Trust in her memory, to highlight and minimise the risks employees face while working by themselves.
At the moment, employers have responsibilities to their workers under health and safety at work legislation. And, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) also provides recommendations on protecting lone workers.
While the HSE acknowledges that working alone isn’t against the law, and that it’s often safe to do so, it also points out: “The law requires employers to consider carefully, and then deal with, any health and safety risks for people working alone.”
Employers have a duty to assess any risks to lone workers, taking steps to avoid or control them. This might include putting in place training programmes, selecting safe work equipment, issuing personal alarms, and regular reviews of working practices.
In some cases, says the HSE, employers may decide that some tasks are too difficult or dangerous to complete alone.
The Suzy Lamplugh Trust points out that while all employees who come into contact with the general public can potentially be in danger of suffering violence and aggression, adding: “However, anyone on their own – without the support and back up of colleagues – is more vulnerable than most.”
The charity, founded by Paul and Diana Lamplugh, outlines its policy on lone workers, saying: “Lone workers need systems and procedures that protect their safety. The lack of these can result not only in staff being put in unnecessary danger – and the employer at risk of litigation – but also low morale, lack of motivation, high levels of sick leave and a high staff turnover. These factors have a negative impact on the organisational performance as well as the individuals. Therefore Suzy Lamplugh Trust believes it pays both employer and employee to get it right.”
So what does getting it right entail? Well, many businesses are using personal safety alarms to protect their employees and meet their legal requirements to protect lone workers.
Organisations including Newcastle NHS Trust, Cambridge University and Parkinsons UK, for example, use the Lookout Call system, which alerts a lone worker’s colleagues if they fail to check in within a certain time.
Women’s Aid Integrated Services explained: “We needed to make sure our workers were as safe as possible when out on visits. We needed a system that would track where our workers were, raise an alarm if the worker failed to return from a visit and also allow them to call for help if they needed it.”
Tens of thousands of NHS lone workers received personal security alarms after a commitment made by former health secretary Alan Johnson to improve the safety and security of staff.
So, while there is no legislation stating it is mandatory to supply lone workers with personal security alarms, many bodies believe they play an important role in keeping employees safe, alongside robust lone worker policies.