Safety, Security and Wellbeing: All key issues for lone workers

This year’s Lone Worker Safety Expo conference was held at the historic King’s Fund building in Central London. Kristen Gasser was there to join in the day’s activities.

The 2019 Lone Worker Safety Conference opened this year with our host Nicole Vazquez canvassing the audience regarding the range of activities their lone workers carry out. What was immediately apparent was just how varied the term ‘lone working’ could be. Forestry, Health, Security, Housing, Laboratories and Retail were just some of the sectors represented in the packed conference room.

Nicole explored with the audience the reasons why so many organisations utilise lone workers. “The world of work is changing fast, with technological developments, financial pressures and the transition to a gig economy contributing to a substantial increase in lone and remote working amongst the UK workforce. This rise has resulted in significant challenges for organisations across a wide range of sectors and industries, many unsure of how best to support and protect those who work by themselves without direct or close supervision”.

HSE to Review Lone Worker Guidance

This message was not lost on the keynote speaker, Barbara Hockey, Head of the Vulnerable Workers Team at the Health and Safety Executive.  She acknowledged the issues in her opening keynote address, stating that her attendance at the previous year’s Conference had opened her eyes to the breadth of the challenges: “During the day, listening to the other presentations and talking to many of the delegates, I recognised that with the number of lone workers rising across all the sectors, the different types of work that people are doing, the issues around the gig economy and the impact on mental health and wellbeing, that we [the HSE] needed to review what we offer, what we do and the advice that we give to employers.”

Barbara announced that because of this insight the HSE is in the process of revising and refreshing their guidance for lone working. The impact of these changes could be far reaching. As the regulatory body, many organisations head to the HSE website for guidance. Barbara announced that 2020 will see changes not only to ‘Working Alone: Health and safety guidance on the risks’ (ING73) but there will also be a greater emphasis on lone working on the HSE website.

Holistic View

The morning continued with a range of speakers all taking a holistic approach to lone working and the key issues of safety, security and wellbeing.

Matt Trigg, Director of Human Applications, expanded on this concept in his engaging address: Making it Easy to Make the Right Choices.

“Where are your lone workers required to make safety decisions?” he asked. “Faced with problems to solve, lone workers don’t have the benefit of other colleagues to ask for help and advice, which makes them susceptible to poor decision-making”. Matt challenged delegates to consider the process of how people make decisions and the factors that have an impact. And how, as employers, they could improve their workers’ decision-making skills through training, support and clearly defined protocols.

Matt encouraged attendees to develop strategies, so that lone workers receive the knowledge and support they require in order to be able to make good decisions on their own. He posed the question “How can I help them to make good decisions? What existing systems can I use? What new systems might I explore?’”

Security is an issue

Chris Phillips, former police officer and founder of IPPSO Ltd, took up the theme of security as he addressed how to mitigate the risks for lone workers travelling in the UK and abroad.

When the majority of the audience agreed that they thought that a terrorist attack was likely in the future, he asked, “So what are you doing to protect your staff? Have you thought through the threats and risks to the business and staff?” He urged employers to consider how they would know where people were, how they were traveling, how to contact them. “If companies are sending their workers travelling, whether it be in the UK or overseas, then it is their responsibility to keep them safe”.

Chris offered direct advice, urging organisations to develop risk assessments for travel and provide specific training, pre-travel advice, crisis contact information and communications systems, adequate insurance, and clear exit strategies.

Mental Health and Wellbeing

The focus of the event turned to the impact of lone working on mental health and wellbeing. Duncan Spencer, Head of Advice and Practice at IOSH argued that, while lone workers require different mechanisms of support due to their situation, a strictly rational approach to addressing their mental health and wellbeing was insufficient. There needs to be an emotionally-responsive focus to ensure an effective, proactive support strategy.

Duncan identified key factors that can erode wellbeing, including lack of control, undue pressure, poor job design, and isolation.

“Organisations must first understand the emotional concerns of their lone workers before they can get them to buy in to rational systems designed to help them feel safer. Management must advance a positive culture that focuses on preventative actions rather than waiting for people to signal they need help, which is too late”.

Duncan said that to be effective, this proactive culture should be represented by tangible goals, clearly communicated by leadership, that empower people at all levels of the organisation to act, “inspiring and encouraging people to be open and transparent”.

Inspirational Message

The final session before lunch saw Professor Tim Marsh introducing Jason Anker MBE, who shared his personal story of transformation after a life-changing workplace accident which was contributed to, in part, by workplace stress and isolation. The audience sat captivated by Jason’s honesty and the power of his story. Understanding how our mindset can negatively influence the decisions we make and hearing Jason talk about the far reaching consequences of his actions certainly made an impression. One member of the audience commented afterwards “I had never really seen the connections between wellbeing, decisions and safety before. I’m so glad to have heard Jason’s story, we can all learn from it”.

The lunch break offered participants more opportunities to chat with exhibitors’, to network with each other and to seek specialised advice from the Conference’s ‘Ask the Experts’ panel. Amongst them was Ed Milnes, Director of Mobile Office Ltd who has was able to provide advice on the musculoskeletal risks associated with Mobile Devices; Craig Swallow, Chair of the BSIA Lone Worker Section who was on hand to explain the importance of British Standards and provide guidance on Body Worn Video and Chief Inspector Patrick Holdaway from the National Business Crime Centre whose knowledge on crime reduction to protect staff was welcomed by delegates.

Afternoon of Interaction

The afternoon consisted of a range of interactive workshops all offering insights on key aspects of lone working.

Sean Elson, Partner with law firm Pinsent Masons LLP, presented a recent case study of a fatal workplace accident that involved a lone worker. He challenged delegates to look at the wider perspective of legal responsibilities for both employers and employees, reminding attendees that “lone working isn’t a risk itself, but it is a dimension of managing risks”. There were lightbulb moments for the audience when Sean discussed the importance of documentation, investigations, legal privilege and how this scenario might play out in a court of law.  

Nicole Vazquez, the Conference’s organiser and Director of Worthwhile Training, led the audience through a drama-based workshop looking at steps organisations can take to manage work-related violence. She focused delegates on the importance of targeted and empowering training, noting that staff don’t always behave as you might expect them to.

To explore this idea, she presented a film of an aggressive incident where staff behaviour acted as a negative factor. As delegates were discussing what ‘went wrong’, Nicole surprised everyone by inviting to the stage the staff members from the film. The audience were able to interrogate the two individuals in more detail, learning more about the potential influences and motivations behind the workers’ actions and how that contributed to the conflict. The style of this delivery really helped engage the audience and provoke meaningful discussions and learning.

Christine Morrison from CMA Training rounded off the workshops by providing practical steps to reduce the personal safety risks to site based lone workers. These included ‘good housekeeping’, regular security audits, creating a ‘challenge’ culture that means no one enters the premises without checks, reporting incidents, and using robust lone worker device systems and personal protection equipment consistently and as designed. She advocated creating a culture of personal safety, urging delegates to “look after your staff, lead by example, be visible and available, and show appreciation”. Christine made a convincing case that if all this was enacted, not only would lone workers be safer, but “we would have a retained workforce, happy and engaged, showing trust, loyalty and increased productivity”. 

The Conference concluded with a panel discussion of experts who took questions from the audience on how to engage lone workers and senior management in the risk control conversation. Louise Ward, EHS Director at Siemens Mobility, summed up the need for meaningful dialogue and understanding, “One of the things we often forget is that the knowledge we need to improve our business is in our business. We just have to create the avenues to allow people to engage with us and pass the information on.”

New Branding – New Activities

Speaking to Nicole Vazquez after the event, she told me “We are thrilled once again with how the event has been received. One delegate said to me that the event gets better and better…it’s really found it’s mojo!”

She went on to explain the plans for 2020. “The event has now proved the power of bringing all things lone working under one banner. So next year, we are launching ‘Lone Worker Safety Live’. Not only will there be another quality educational day in October, there will also be mini-events and information provided to the lone worker community throughout the year”.