Who is a Lone Worker – and Why Should You Care?

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Just before Christmas 2013, father of two Robert Geach died while working alone at Falmouth Water Treatment Works. He had fallen into a tank of water but colleagues, who hadn’t seen him for several hours, only found his body 90 minutes later. The judge at Truro Crown Court described his tragic death as an accident waiting to happen and fined South West Water £1.8m.

It may be easy with hindsight to see that Robert was working alone – and that his employers should have done more to protect him. Yet too many board directors, particularly of SMEs, seem unaware that in law they are both collectively and individually responsible for the health, safety and welfare of all their workers. That includes lone contractors and self-employed people working for them, whether on or off site. 

As the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) points out, a lone worker is someone who “works by themselves without close or direct supervision.” Obvious examples might be a forestry worker in a wood, a farmer in a remote field, or a security guard on a nightshift in an empty factory, because they are clearly alone. Yet it is easy to overlook those people across multiple sectors who work alone in the midst of others. 

Take a utility company representative checking domestic meter readings – or a solitary field engineer working on a high street telephone exchange. They are working in public view but they are still lone workers. Think about a school caretaker or an office cleaner - people tend to see them but often don’t really notice them. What if they have an accident or a heart attack in a storeroom – how long before anyone realises and raises the alarm? 

Mobile workers, such as occupational therapists, health visitors on house calls, delivery drivers, and estate agents (particularly those visiting empty properties), are obviously lone workers. However, many lone workers have fixed locations, such as corner shops, petrol station kiosks, libraries and small workshops. The Church of England has even reported on the risk of lone working for members of the clergy

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Who is going to watch your back?

We all have a moral duty to ensure our colleagues get home safe and well to their families every day. It also makes business sense to reduce the number of working days lost due to work-related injury and ill health. However, companies also have a legal duty of care– failure to comply with the law can result in heavy fines, uninsured losses, reputational damage – and even a prison sentence. 

When minutes can make the difference between life and death, it is vital companies have robust procedures to protect all workers, particularly those working alone. Employers should not simply assess the risks; they must consult the people at risk to ensure the “preventative and protective” measures they put in place are effective, understood and implemented. That includes taking account of people who don’t have English as their first language and providing lone workers with regular training and assessment sessions.