More of us are working remotely right now than ever before. And whilst it may not have been a voluntary move to begin with, many people have now adapted to lone working from home and prefer it, at least some of the time, to working on site.
There are plenty of benefits associated with flexible and remote working, from increased productivity to greater overall satisfaction in both professional and personal life. But there are also some risks associated with lone working that it is important to be aware of, even if your job only requires you to sit at a desk while you work.
In this article, we explain some of the key risks associated with lone working for both employers and employees to consider, as well as the steps that everyone can take in order to ensure that they are safe when working alone.
Lone working involves any work carried out by an individual who is by themselves and not under direct supervision. They perform their work in isolation without any face-to-face contact with other employees, and may only occasionally spend time at an organisation's workplace.
A lone worker may be someone who independently carries out tasks away from their employer’s workplace, such as a builder, an electrician, a gardener or certain healthcare professionals. The term also includes those who work remotely but can carry out their work from their home or another location without having to travel anywhere else.
Lone workers have been classified as potentially at risk by HSE because they work independently and therefore do not have the security of being surrounded by others who can protect them or give them help when needed. There is a range of physical and mental risks presented by lone working, which we will explain below.
One of the biggest associated hazards of lone working is if an accident takes place. This is a hazard that is present no matter where a lone worker is and the job they are doing, although those who carry out manual labour are definitely more at risk.
When you’re working with others, an accident can be quickly responded to and the lasting damage minimised, whereas if you’re working on your own and are unable to get help, you may have to wait a long time until help arrives. Whilst worst-case scenarios are rare, this can cause serious damage if, for example, you have a fall whilst working and have to wait until you are found before any medical help can be given.
Those who work remotely from home are also at risk of accidents, especially if they live alone. If you have an accident anywhere in your house whilst at work you may not be found or may be unable to get help, particularly if you have little contact with other employees and therefore nobody realises that you are missing.
Accidents fall under the umbrella of medical emergencies, but other situations like a sudden illness, an allergic reaction or an event such as choking or unconsciousness are also a serious risk when working alone. In situations where urgent medical help is needed, it can sometimes be impossible for you to call for help yourself, which puts you in a very risky position and can have potentially serious consequences.
A lack of supervision ties into what makes the two situations above so risky; without another person around whilst you’re working, you have nobody to provide help if you need it. It also poses a risk because if you’re new to a job or unsure about the safest possible way to do something, you have nobody to offer assistance and therefore run the risk of getting into difficulty or injuring yourself because nobody has pointed out a potential hazard.
This lone working risk doesn’t apply to everyone, but some lone working roles that involve visiting people in their homes or community work come with the risk of violence from others. Whether you work with vulnerable individuals that are more prone to violence when confused or upset, or work in an industry like law enforcement where you have to deal with violence as part of your job, you may be more at risk of being targeted by violence without assistance from a colleague or the presence of another person.
The workplace location or environment often poses a risk to the individual working there, particularly if they’re completing work from a height, interacting with dangerous equipment or carrying out difficult manual labour. Environmental risks should always be removed as much as possible during lone working, even if they seem insignificant such as stray wires, an untidy desk or unstable furniture.
The safety of your environment may also need to be considered when lone working is carried out in different locations, as some areas may be considered more dangerous than others and require support or preparation before a visit.
One of the risks of lone working that is often overlooked is loneliness. Many people assume that lone workers have chosen a role because they enjoy being by themselves, but prolonged loneliness can have numerous severe consequences and it is very important to ensure that workers aren’t completely cut off from human contact by working on their own.
Whether it’s working alone in customers’ houses or sitting at a desk in a study at home each day, a lack of interaction with your colleagues can lead to loneliness that can then develop into conditions such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and agoraphobia. It may also affect the enjoyment of a job and lead to underperformance.
Without the supervision of other colleagues and the structure of arriving at and leaving a workplace, overworking can be very easy to do as a lone worker. This presents a risk because employees may become stressed, burned out and fail to maintain a good work-life balance which can lead to health conditions and have a negative impact on the rest of their lives.
One of the general risks of lone working is a negative impact on mental health, which has already been touched upon in the above points. Whilst many people are more productive on their own or enjoy the freedom of not having to commute to a workplace every day, being totally remote and never seeing colleagues or managers can make a role harder and much less enjoyable, which can negatively impact your mental state. A lack of socialising, change of scenery and change of routine may lead to low energy and bad moods, along with the other conditions that have been previously discussed.
If you’re an employer responsible for ensuring the safety of your lone workers, here are some of the best things you can do to keep your staff safe.
The best way to reduce risk at work is to carry out an official lone working risk assessment that will allow you to identify any potential hazards of lone working and take the necessary steps to remove these or reduce them as much as possible. You can read our guide to completing a working from home risk assessment here.
As we’ve already discussed, some of the biggest risks faced by lone workers are becoming injured or unwell and not receiving any help until someone else notices that they’re gone. By implementing monitoring procedures that may involve regularly checking in with lone workers or providing them with safety devices that monitor their status, the risk of undiscovered injury or accident is significantly reduced.
Regular meetings with lone workers reduce multiple risks of lone working. Not only do these check-ins help to highlight any health and safety concerns or identify if someone may be working in an unsafe way, but it also provides regular social interaction that can help to reduce feelings of loneliness or isolation and also help to identify early on if someone’s mental wellbeing may be affected by lone working. Different employees may need meetings at different frequencies, but it’s important to find the right balance so that everyone is getting what they need.
At the very least, all lone workers should have a clear channel of communication that they can use to get in touch with either a manager, a supervisor or a fellow employee if they need help or advice. Lone workers who travel should be provided with phones and remote workers that work at home or in shared workspaces need easy access to other employees so that they can ask questions and get involved in discussions.
Whilst it is the role of an employer to carry out risk assessments for lone workers, these workers should undertake relevant health and safety training to ensure that they're working in the safest way possible when on their own. This is more relevant to employees that carry out manual labour and other practical jobs as part of their work, but home workers should also be educated on the risks of lone working and things like safely using display screen equipment.
Finally, if a workforce is predominantly made up of lone workers then feelings of loneliness and isolation can be avoided by putting more effort into creating a sense of employee culture. Organising social events, facilitating conversation and helping relationships to be formed will all make lone workers feel more connected to each other and their organisation, which can reduce the impact that working alone has on mental wellbeing.
There are no direct laws that relate to lone working, but those who work alone are covered by the majority of employment laws when it comes to health and safety. Under The Health and Safety at Work Act (1974), all employers have a legal duty to ensure the safety of their employees whilst they’re at work, which includes ensuring that lone workers are as safe as possible whilst they're working without any supervision.
PET is an acronym that can be used by lone workers as a way of remembering three things they should bear in mind when assessing the safety of working alone. It stands for ‘people’, ‘environment’ and ‘task’, which should all be considered when judging how likely it is that a hazardous situation will occur and therefore helps you decide what safety measures need to be put in place to reduce or remove this risk.
HSE states that it is an employer’s responsibility to ensure the health and safety of all of their employees whilst at work, which includes completing a risk assessment where necessary. If you are a lone worker then your employer should have completed a risk assessment of your lone working situation before you began work, which you can ask to see at any time and can make suggestions when you think it needs to be updated.
Remote working may not seem like a particularly risky situation, but there are plenty of hazards that need to be identified and monitored to ensure the safety of employees. Whether you’re an employer that is responsible for lone workers or a remote worker who wants to make sure that you’re going to stay safe on the job, the measures we’ve listed above are a great place to start when it comes to lone working.
If you’d like to find out more about health and safety related to lone working, we offer a ‘Personal Safety for Lone Workers’ online course as well as a ‘Statutory & Mandatory Training: Lone Working & Security Awareness’ course, suitable for employers and lone worker employees.