Lone Working - A growing trend

Claire Opacic
Claire Opacic

Published: May 3rd, 2023

7 min read

As recent news headlines have repeatedly reminded us living costs have been rising over the past year, with the conflict in Ukraine, Brexit and the global recovery from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic putting pressure on prices. According to the Office of National Statistics in the UK, the price of consumer goods and services rose at the fastest rate in four decades in the year to October 2022. Meanwhile retail sales volumes were estimated to have fallen by 0.9% in March 2023. As such against this backdrop it is easy to see why many retail businesses have reduced or may be considering reducing their staffing levels. Afterall, with reduced spend there may be a falling need for customer assistance and, with rising costs of running the store, this may seem a sensible step to improve profitability. Added to this, technology has allowed businesses to increase the automated options within a store. There was already a move towards decreasing the number of manned tills and increasing self serve counters and self scan machines before the current price rises. In recent years we have seen new business models appear such as the Amazon Fresh shops which use technology to automatically detect when products are taken the shelves, and to let customers simply tap a payment card when they exit rather than having to go to any checkout at all. As a result this appears likely to be a growing trend, with low staffing levels and lone workers increasing.

It is however important that all responsible employers ensure that they have carried out appropriate lone working risk assessments if this is a step that is being considered, and that suitable control measures are implemented. That assessment does not need to be part of a separate document to your general risk assessments, but the relevant issues must be addressed. It is legal to allow staff to work alone, but an employer's duty of care and responsibilities as set out in The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and other such regulations continue to apply. As such all employers must ensure that they have in place a safe working environment for lone workers that accounts for the unique risks that these individuals can face, but also allows for the impact that this kind of set up may have on typical control measures often implemented for other more common and traditional risks in the workplace.

To ensure that all businesses are aware of the risks that may be involved in such a work model we have set out below some of the key issues you may wish to consider if this is something that you are exploring:

Manual handling

Most manual handling risk assessments provide a control measure of seeking assistance if a load is too heavy to manage. If someone is working alone, or even with reduced staffing levels in larger premises, is there the availability of assistance to practically manage in this way, particularly if some staff may have limitations on their ability to manual handle due to existing back problems? If the answer is no, other control measures will need to be implemented to assist to ensure that staff are not attempting to deal with heavy items such as deliveries by themselves. Consideration should be given for the provision of more manual handling aids and equipment or reducing the size of parcels being received. It may be that increased staffing could be considered at peak times when deliveries are expected, and for lifting activities to be left until that stage but even so additional updated training may well be required for all staff to ensure that they are familiar with the new processes and what they are expected to do. Otherwise claims could still be possible with claimants suggesting that they were doing their best to get a task completed whilst alone in a store.

Higher risk activities

We would recommend that specific consideration be given to any high risk activities which should not be carried out by lone workers and for which assistance or supervision should be requested. The type of activities may vary dependant on the business but could include work on electricity systems, work at height etc. That way the riskier tasks will be witnessed and assistance available should a problem arise. This may seem unnecessary but bearing in mind the fines that could be imposed after an accident, it may be a more cost effective solution in the long run. For example in 2017 Electricity North West were fined £900k after a worker fell 6 ft from a ladder and died whilst working alone.

Access and communication

Do all staff have sufficient levels of English to be able to safely communicate whilst on their own? Not only is this potentially a customer service issue, but also staff need to be able to seek assistance in an emergency.

If a lone worker becomes ill do they have access to aid? It may be sensible for them to receive first aid training, and have access to first aid equipment. This is particularly the case if the member of staff has a known health condition and a specific assessment may be needed dependant on the nature of their illness.

Also do they have an adequate and reliable source of communication to seek help? A company mobile may be issued for example that they can carry on them at all times to use in an emergency but if they work in a network black spot this may not assist and a radio may be a better option. For example two companies were fined over £850,000 after a security guard died of hypothermia when he became snowed in on a construction site in Scotland in 2018. The location he was working from had a faulty generator, there was no landline service for him to call for help and just limited mobile coverage for his personal mobile, having been given no work device.

If a mobile can be used there are a number of apps and services available that can also be used to ensure a lone worker can seek help when needed. This would potentially avoid a situation where a lone worker cannot get hold of their line manager and does not know who else to contact for example. It may also be sensible to implement a system of regular check in times which enable an employer to monitor by phone or email etc that there is nothing wrong throughout the shift.

Risk of work-related violence

A lone worker will not automatically face violence in the workplace but there is an argument that it may make the risk of such action more likely. Further, without the support of a colleague the worker may feel more vulnerable and less able to resist or prevent such occurrences. This effect will be increased if the lone worker is working during the evening or early morning when it is dark and there are less people around. In addition, if they are working in an area known for criminal activity and violence the risks will be elevated, particularly if the premises holds cash or other valuables. As a result, if an employer is on notice of an increased risk of violence then consideration should be given as to the suitability of lone working.

In the Scottish claim of Collins v First Quench Retailing Ltd [2003] WL 116968 the Court of Sessions was critical of an off licence which was manned by a lone woman after a previous history of thefts, assaults, and robberies, even during the day. Lord Carloway stated "I am of the view that the employment of two members of staff in premises, where physical attacks might be anticipated, is a step which materially reduces the risk of such an attack, including a robbery, happening. It is also an obvious and apparently practical step which might have been taken. In the absence of any economic or other argument to the contrary, I consider that it was also both a reasonable step to take and one which, in this case, ought to have been carried out."

It is therefore suggested that businesses such as off licences or betting shops which may be expected to hold cash on the premises carefully consider the use of lone workers, particularly if there has been previous criminal activity at the location. In all circumstances it is sensible to consider issuing training to staff on how to deal with threats to personal safety so that they can mitigate the risks to them should something occur. Use of equipment such a panic alarms should be considered and potentially security barriers for high risk businesses.

Mental health and stress levels

It is found that lone working can impact negatively on workers' mental wellbeing. If steps are not taken to manage the same, employers may find themselves exposed to the risk of claims of workplace stress. Even without such legal steps overall performance and staff retention can be affected if an employee is feeling isolated and not part of a team. Recommendations are that there should be a regular method of direct contact with a line manager to ensure that the worker feels supported and able to raise issues. Such contact would also enable a good line manager to potentially spot warning signs of someone who is struggling and take steps at an early stage to help prevent time off and claims. In addition, ensuring that employees have access to social events or team meetings may help create a sense of belonging and connectivity.

Training and supervision

There is still an obligation to supervise lone workers. Further as they will be working alone, and have no one immediately available to ask for help, it is important to ensure that lone workers are operational at the expected level and have understood the training and guidance given before they are left alone. We therefore recommend ensuring that lone workers have been fully trained and understand not only their role but also what they are allowed to do, and not do, before they are left to work unattended. They should be aware of where to find assistance or help if required. This may mean a period for new starters where they are accompanied for an initial period before being left on shift alone.

Even after the initial period we would also still recommend periodic visits from a supervisor to ensure that working practices are being followed, as bad practices can set in over time. This also gives the opportunity for touch points in respect of wellbeing checks and ensuring that communication remains in place.

Home working

These duties continue to exist even if the staff member is working from home, some or all of the time. As a result it is sensible to ensure that, if an employee is working from home regularly, they undertake a workstation assessment to ensure that they are working in a safe environment, avoiding harmful postures and bad working practices. Training could also be issued in respect of the same.

Hopefully this provides a useful summary of some key issues for consideration if you face such a scenario. We would be happy to provide further guidance upon request on any specific issues anticipated or to deal with any queries. Realistically it is important to remember that staffing costs are not the only expenditure that needs to be considered when assessing the economics of lone working and the sizeable fines that can be imposed, and the cost of civil claims, that may arise from unsafe practices in this regard may balance out the savings achieved.

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