In this guide for employers, we explain the law in the UK relating to lone working, from the protection that those working alone or in isolated conditions should be afforded, to the importance of putting in place a lone worker policy and what this should include.
What are lone workers?
A lone worker is anyone working without the immediate support of either a supervisor or colleague — as defined by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as “those who work by themselves (for part or all of their working day) without close or direct supervision”.
Lone working can cover a wide range of roles across any industry, where it may be that work is undertaken in remote areas, in total isolation, or one-to-one with members of the public or clients. Lone working doesn’t always mean completely alone; some common roles utilising lone workers include estate agents, housing officers, health workers, shop workers, warehouse workers, sales representatives, delivery drivers, and security and cleaning staff.
In some cases, it may be difficult to identify those lone working within your organisation, where ‘hidden lone workers’ could include:
- individuals working alone in different parts of a building or workplace
- those left alone for periods of time while a supervisor or colleague takes a break
- a single employee working late after everyone else has left for the day
- someone travelling alone during working hours
- those working alone but alongside members of the public
- those working from home or otherwise working remotely where, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a significant increase in lone workers.
What are an employer’s obligations to protect lone workers?
The UK doesn’t have any specific legislation to protect lone workers, although all employers are under a statutory duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of its employees. It’s therefore important for employers, and all those responsible for health and safety in the workplace, to understand the rules that regulate lone working — as set out under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 — and what steps must be taken to discharge the employer’s duty.
The 1974 Act outlines the general duty of care owed by an employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of an employee, whilst the 1999 Regulations require the employer to carry out a risk assessment, and to implement preventive and protective measures to control any risks that an employee may face. This can include the provision of policies and procedures to help mitigate any hazards identified on assessment, appointing competent people within the workplace to manage issues of health and safety, and investing in the training of management and staff on relevant high risk matters.
The HSE is the national regulator for workplace health and safety in the UK, with the power to investigate and take enforcement action against employers who fail to comply with the law. In itself, working alone is completely legal, and is usually safe to do so, but the law (and the HSE) require employers to adequately assess and address any health and safety risks before staff are allowed to do so. This is because employers have a duty of care to protect their lone workers, and to ensure that they’re safe when undertaking work without direct supervision.
Lone working risk assessments
Under the 1999 Regulations, every employer must undertake a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to the health and safety of their employees to which they’re exposed at work — including any risks from lone working — otherwise risk being in breach of their duty of care. Risk assessments for lone working are a basic legal requirement and should be carried out for every employee who will be working alone at any point during their working day.
The risks of lone working can vary, depending on the nature of the employee’s job and their working environment, although the importance of undertaking a risk assessment cannot be underestimated, regardless of their role. When conducting a risk assessment for lone workers, employers must consider hazards related to the particular work being undertaken, the people the individual will come into contact with and the different environments they work in.
Some of the biggest risk factors in the workplace for lone workers are:
- accidental injury: this could include slips, trips and falls; heavy lifting and manual handling; operating machinery and equipment; working at height; working with electricity, chemicals or other harmful substances; being struck by a moving object; or road traffic accidents;
- acts of aggression or violence: this could include verbal abuse and threats from a service-user, customer or client, or a physical altercation with, or assault by, a member of the public;
- health emergencies: this could include things like a heart attack, stroke or sudden onset of any other serious health condition that requires immediate medical assistance.
The incidence of aggressive or violent behaviour for lone workers in public-facing roles can be high. This could be due to the nature of their job, such as those working with vulnerable members of the public behind closed doors, for example, social workers or health visitors, or those handling large amounts of money, for example, retail or hospitality staff. The lone worker is also often more susceptible to verbal and/or physical abuse, simply because they’re perceived as an easy target, without anyone there to intervene or raise the alarm.
In the context of lone working, the incidence of accidental injury can again be higher than that for non-lone workers due to the lack of direct supervision. The seriousness of any injury is then often exacerbated by the fact that they’re out of sight and sound, with nobody present to call for help. Combined with health emergencies, the risk of serious injury and fatalities is therefore greater for lone workers than for those working under supervision or with others.
Absent a lone working risk assessment, many of these risks — even though obvious in the context of certain occupations, such as security work — can easily be overlooked. By conducting an assessment, this can help employers to understand the specific dangers faced by lone workers in various scenarios, and to put measures in place to mitigate these risks.
What measures should be put in place to protect lone workers?
Having conducted a risk assessment, the conclusion drawn may be that certain individuals or those in high-risk roles should not actually be permitted to work alone. This could include employees with unpredictable medical conditions. It could also include where the employee is operating machinery which requires more than one person, or where a pair of employees has been deemed mandatory when visiting a service-user or client due to concerns over violence.
However, provided there are no extenuating circumstances which would warrant an outright ban on lone working, there are various practical ways in which an employer can protect a lone worker from harm. These measures, amongst others, can help employers not only to meet their duty of care to lone workers, but also ensure that these individuals feel protected and safeguarded at work. The different types of preventive and protective measures that can be used to mitigate the risk of an employee working alone can include:
Using GPS and cellular technology, lone worker apps have the ability to provide employers with visibility of the employee’s exact location and safety status when they’re working alone. An app can also enable an employee to signal for help in an emergency situation using a range of alerts, including a panic button.
Discreet panic alarm buttons can be hidden on clothing such as a belt, lanyard, watch or bra strap. These can be used as an extra precaution without the employee having to unlock their phone, potentially alerting the person posing the threat of their actions and, in this way, antagonising an already uncomfortable or dangerous situation.
GPS tracking devices can be used to track the location of the employee’s vehicle in real-time. This can be useful, for example, in the event of a road traffic accident, although employers must ensure that employee’s are aware that vehicle trackers are being used so as not to breach data protection laws or the employee’s human rights.
This can be achieved using traditional methods, such as a manual diary or buddy system, although more advanced technology solutions, such as a safety app including a check-in facility, will provide the employer with much more accurate information. In many cases, however, by simply ensuring that regular contact is maintained — either via text, telephone or email — this can allow the employer to effectively monitor the whereabouts and wellbeing of the employee.
By providing management with training on the risks that lone workers may face, and how to handle these risks, as well as training staff on how to caretake their own safety when working alone, especially in the context of their job role, this will help to minimise the incidence of harm. This could include conflict resolution to deal with issues of aggression or violence, or first aid training and how to use this on themselves.
Lone worker policy
A lone worker policy is a written document setting out an organisations’ rules on working alone. It’s not a strict legal requirement to have this type of policy in place, but it can be an extremely useful way, not only of helping an employer to discharge their statutory duty of care but, in practice, safeguarding their staff by minimising the risk of harm.
A lone worker policy is essentially a useful guide to help employees to understand the risks of their role, and to provide them with practical advice and instruction on how to safely work alone. Provided this is easy to understand, easily accessible and regularly reviewed, this can go a significant way to safeguarding lone workers.
What should a lone worker policy include?
There’s no right or wrong way of creating a lone worker policy, although the foundation of an effective and informative document should include:
- a statement of commitment to ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees, so far as is reasonably practicable, including lone workers
- a definition of what constitutes lone working, with examples of the types of roles or scenarios that can encompass working alone
- the nature of any risks that lone working may present
- the type of safety measures that are in place to protect against those risks
- what the lone worker can do to protect themselves whilst at work
- the specific procedures to follow when working alone, for example, using a check-in app or maintaining regular contact with a supervisor or colleague
- what steps to take in an emergency situation, for example, if a member of the public shows signs of aggression or if an unauthorised visitor attempts to enter the workplace, including emergency contact numbers and how to use any devices provided to signal for help.
This is not an exhaustive list; employers will need to ensure their policy covers the specific requirements of its lone workers, and incorporate additional sections depending on the nature of their business and the lone working roles involved. It may even be advisable to draft separate policies for different types of lone working. For example, in relation to the lone worker in a public-facing role, there may be significant risks of acts of abuse or assault. In contrast, for the home-worker, there is a very real risk of work-related stress if they start to feel disconnected or isolated from colleagues, where employers have the same duty of care to ensure the welfare of someone working from home as any other lone worker.
In many cases, asking those who undertake lone working to directly contribute to the policy document can be a good way of identifying potential risks that perhaps hadn’t otherwise been considered. The lone worker may also be able to suggest useful ways in which they could be made to feel safeguarded at work, both physically and mentally.
Having drafted a lone worker policy, all members of staff must then be briefed as to the existence and contents of this document, with regular updates and reviews.
Lone working FAQs
What is meant by lone working?
Lone working refers to working alone, for part or all of the working day, without close or direct supervision. Lone working doesn’t always mean completely alone, but can include one-to-one working with members of the public or clients.
Is it illegal to lone work?
In itself, lone working is completely legal, and is usually safe to do so, but the law requires an employer to adequately assess and address any health and safety risks before staff are allowed to work alone without direct supervision.
Must employers undertake a lone working risk assessment?
Risk assessments for lone working are a basic legal requirement that should be carried out by employers for all employees who will be working alone, whether for part or all of their working day, and regardless of their job role.
What is the lone working policy?
A lone working policy is a written document setting out an organisation's rules on working alone, and to help employees understand the risks they may face and what steps to take in an emergency situation.
What must the employer of a lone worker do?
Employers of lone workers must undertake an assessment to identify any factors at work which may expose the individual to a risk to their health safety, such as accidental injury or physical assault, and implement measures to control these risks.
The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.