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Ensuring Lone Worker Safety: HR’s Critical Role in a Remote and Hybrid Workforce

HR directors play a pivotal role in ensuring the collective health and well-being of lone workers. With the prevalence of UK lone workers today, understanding and mitigating the unique risks they face is crucial.

In organisations with departments comprising one or more lone workers, HR directors and senior managers play a pivotal role in ensuring their collective health and well-being. With organisations increasingly deploying remote and hybrid business models in an attempt to stay competitive, HR departments can invariably have difficulties assessing how truly safe their lone working employees are when out in the field constantly for extended times. 

Considering the prevalence of lone workers across the UK (estimated to be up to 8 million, or 22% of the working population), it’s worth paying close attention to the broad risks they could be exposed to, risks that wouldn’t likely fall to everyday office workers, for example. Lone working professionals, often working in isolation and for lengthy periods unsupervised, face different risks that require proactive mitigation and effective prevention, where possible. 

The NHS, for example, employs up to 100,000 healthcare professionals who work on their own every day, equating to roughly 9% of its entire workforce. Other examples of lone workers include delivery drivers, security guards, cleaners, estate agents, and many others who work by themselves away from a fixed base or outside of normal working hours without direct supervision. While the HSE mentions that working alone is often largely safe, the law states that employers must exercise their duty of care to ensure their workers are reasonably safe and implement appropriate measures.

Regardless of the size of the business or sector of operation, HR directors and decision-makers can leverage their enhanced communication skills, policy influence, and lone worker safety awareness to ensure that their workforce(s) can continue to do their jobs safely. Beyond being a simple tick-box exercise for compliance, the safety of your workforce is a business investment, creating an environment where morale and retention are both higher, productivity is enhanced, and quality of service is at a continuously high standard.

Understanding the Risks and Challenges of Lone Working

While there is no specific legislation related to lone working, general health and safety laws (e.g. the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, etc.) must be complied with. 

Depending on the sector of your business and the amount of lone-working employees, you may have to make specific health and safety decisions based on their risk profile. For example, salespeople or marketing professionals working from home may be exposed to fewer and less intense risks than, say, security guards, parking officers, bailiffs, or housing officers. That doesn’t mean that all employees are exempt from physical, environmental or psychological hazards. 

Physical risks may include personal injuries or accidents, working at heights, driving, slips, trips or falls, or even calculated attacks of violence or abuse from third parties. Environmental risks could stem from exposure to extreme weather conditions or hazardous materials. Psychological risks can range from fatigue to stress and anxiety, which can profoundly impact well-being, decision-making abilities, and service quality.

As such, employers and HR professionals must work diligently to conduct unique risk assessments for each employee who is responsible for lone working. Whether they are working unsupervised for multiple hours at a time or sporadically, lone worker risk assessments help determine whether they can safely complete their jobs without direct oversight and whether situations and problems can be addressed proactively and decisively.

Develop a Comprehensive Lone Worker Safety Policy

Establishing clear lone worker safety policies sets the standard by which organisations can be assessed and held accountable. Setting out clear guidelines and procedures following a comprehensive risk assessment allows lone workers to understand exactly what needs to be done. It also provides reassurance for stakeholders and regulators that, should an incident arise that warrants investigation, all policies were implemented as intended and that lone workers were compliant.

From the outset, creating lone worker policies should involve the workforce’s direct involvement to ensure their perspectives, experiences, and concerns are adequately considered. This will allow HR managers to get an accurate sense of their everyday risk exposure. In light of new industry best practices, evolving workplace conditions, and expanding employee numbers, review and update any policies accordingly.

Of course, establishing policies at the highest level is meaningless if organisations do not ‘practise what they preach’. It’s one thing to implement policies that stipulate lone working criteria, but it’s another thing entirely if procedures are not followed. So, let’s review the important elements of creating an inherently safer environment. 

How to Cultivate a Safer Environment for Lone Workers

Encourage Open Communication

Foster open and transparent communication with all lone workers, encouraging them to report any unsafe working practices, hazardous conditions or developing concerns. Check in with them regularly and take their feedback on board to ensure that they feel supported and connected to the organisations. 

Where possible, use technology – such as lone worker safety devices, monitoring systems and alarms – to enhance real-time communication and tracking while being cognizant of their safety.

Provide Sufficient Training and Resources

Develop training programmes tailored to the specific risks and challenges faced by lone workers, ensuring that all topics and aspects are considered, from conflict management and emergency response to stress and anxiety resolution. Resources can also be physical, ranging from PPE to safety equipment that prevents any undue physical harm or injury while outside of a usual working location. 

Make sure that these physical and digital resources are readily accessible to any employee at any time, and that all employees are regularly brought up to speed with new policies and procedures as they evolve.

Conduct Regular Lone Working Risk Assessments

Perform comprehensive and non-invasive risk assessments for lone workers, emphasising that they are not being graded but rather as a means of improving their safety and bringing the organisation closer to them, metaphorically speaking. 

Utilise the expertise of your lone working professionals and ‌that of other departments to identify potential risks based on their likelihood and damage, and develop effective mitigation strategies from there. Involve lone workers in regular risk assessments to gain valuable insights into their daily experiences, challenges and situations. 

From this, evaluate the effectiveness of your lone worker safety policies and strategies, adjusting them based on incident reports, changing workplace conditions and worsening risk levels. Stay well informed on all developing industry recommendations and regulatory changes to ensure your organisation’s policies are compliant and that, primarily, they are providing the best possible safety support and reassurance to your teams in the field. A good resource is the HSE website which regularly provides annual statistics and data about workplace accidents, for example. 

Embracing a mindset of continuous improvement and development will ensure your organisation remains best placed to protect its lone workforce as the business scales and the team expands.

Balancing Autonomy with Supervision

HSE guidance stipulates that employers – and, by extension, their HR functions – should maintain regular contact with lone working staff and provide straightforward ways they can receive help in an emergency. Employers are being urged to be more proactive in their safety measures, but there is a fine line between checking in regularly and disrupting their autonomy which is pivotal in helping them perform their jobs. 

HR teams will prove instrumental in striking the right balance between keeping lone workers productive and supported. The amount of supervision needed will be determined by the workers’ abilities to identify and handle issues as well as the risk level. As such, HR teams can help reinforce lone worker safety and well-being measures by conducting semi-regular check-ins, periodic site visits, and sporadic phone calls, while being responsive to employees when they need assistance. 

Organisations must ensure their due diligence does not come at the expense of lone workers’ autonomy and productivity. With the right safety policies, an aligned workplace culture, and proactively speaking with employees on occasion without interrupting their workflows, they can, in turn, feel much more supported and inclined to speak out about issues and risks.

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