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Lone workers – your hidden workforce
There are over six million lone workers in the UK which represents about 20 per cent of the UK workforce. They represent the ‘hidden’ workforce that is under represented in an office they rarely frequent. Nick Whiteley discusses the issue of lone worker protection
Lone workers can be found in most, if not all, organisations across industry and performing a varied set of functions for the business. The NHS is one such organisation, employing up to 100,000 healthcare professionals who work on their own every single day, representing nine per cent of its workforce.
There are significant challenges for organisations with lone workers that are often underestimated by senior management and misunderstood by managers. This can often manifest itself by regarding lone workers as a ‘nuisance’ or ‘heavy maintenance’ because systems, processes and procedures are often designed around the majority, which is usually office-based staff. Office based on-boarding processes and procedures are generally well understood; desk, chair, space, landline, laptop can be often allocated and deployed without issue, but lone workers often have differing requirements, and these can easily be interpreted as staff being ‘awkward’ or a ’nuisance’ rather than simply having a different set of requirements to office-based workers. This can create resentment from both management and lone workers themselves.
Maintaining a coherent company culture that often is cultivated informally within an office environment (the so-called ‘water cooler’ chats) are weakened through remote and lone workers and more proactive and organised interactions and events are required to ensure company values and culture are shared and embodied equally among staff.
Of equal importance is the need to ensure positive relationships across the organisation. Whilst hierarchical structures might appear to be the main mechanism in order to execute strategy, the reality is that at ground level, it is positive relationships which are responsible for getting the job done. Remote and lone workers have less interaction and therefore the potential for less positive relationships exist and this can negatively affect productivity within and across teams.
Duty of care
The issue of duty of care also becomes more complicated when staff are not office-based and must be dealt with thoroughly. The law requires employers to consider carefully, and then deal with, any health and safety risks for people working alone. (Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974; the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999).
There is no magic process for this given that lone workers work in a variety of settings and environments, from working in a petrol station, working at home or in a care setting visiting a patient. Each scenario is different and requires a detailed analysis of risks along with a mitigation plan.
Lone workers, by their very nature, are at greater risk than office-based workers and need additional support. As many as 150 lone workers are either physically or verbally attacked every day, according to the British Crime Survey, with the Royal College of Nursing noting that more than six per cent of lone workers in the NHS had been physically attacked. These statistics should provide a stark reminder to those responsible for risk assessment and mitigation that such risks should not be treated as a theoretical tick-box exercise but a reality that needs to be addressed.
Risk assessment and mitigation needs to include the environment that the lone worker is subject to, the tasks the lone worker is expected to carry out, the associated risks with both environment and activities as well as compiling a list of potential scenarios and how they could be addressed. This should include procedures, training, tools, technology and equipment that either prevent, mitigate or provide for the ability to escape harm and/or rapid response.
The very nature of lone working means that neither colleagues or management are 'by their side' to help advise, assist, support the lone worker in case of an adverse event.
Here is (non-exhaustive) list of areas organisations should consider:
Conflict management training: The ability to de-escalate a situation before it becomes physical/violent.
Real-time risk assessment and awareness training: There are many situations that cannot be foreseen or turned into a process/procedure so the ability for the lone worker to make this assessment and take appropriate action is critical when unable to contact their manager.
The provision of protective equipment and medical kit: Where appropriate and specific to their task these can be essential.
Technology, mobile tracking and alerting: There are solutions that enable lone workers to be – by consent – tracked during their working time so that management can exercise their duty of care. Some systems also have a panic button on the mobile device that can alert staff and/or alert staff when they have not received a GPS position after a certain amount of time or indeed haven’t changed position after a set amount of time.
Culture and relationships: It is important for the organisation to create opportunities to build relationships with both office-based and lone worker staffing groups recognising that this doesn’t happen naturally. Examples of this could be company days, office days, or events held off-site and bring staff together in a neutral environment. This also creates opportunities to reinforce company culture and values within and between teams. Part of this is not just recognising there are different staffing groups but also explaining these differences and communicating the value each bring to the organisation. The value of doing this should not be underestimated or disregarded as a ‘warm and fuzzy’ initiative but key to ensuring that part of your workforce isn’t unseen and undervalued.
In conclusion, whilst lone workers are rarely seen in the office, it is imperative that they do not become your ‘hidden’ workforce. Their voice, their views, their requirements must be heard in equal proportion to the workers you meet every day. Only by ensuring they are fully integrated, engaged and considered will you be able to ensure not just their needs and safety are met but also maintain and improve productivity levels across the whole of the organisation.