Lone Working: Safety Must Come First

Patrick Dealtry insists that organisations must take measures to protect their care workers…

The issue of lone worker safety has never been more urgent for employers to address as cases of abuse and violence are continuing to rise, while legislation compels employers to take steps to protect their staff. The national newspapers run stories every month regarding attacks on care workers and nurses and staff just working alone, and the local papers never run out of such stories closer to home.

A quick web search for “care worker attack” throws up dozens of stories- two recent stories in the top five jumped out at me as I write this. The Scotsman, 29th June 2007 carried the story “Worried GPs want attack alarms issued to health staff” whilst the BBC news had “Care worker knife attacker jailed” on the 15th June. Workers are increasingly vulnerable whenever they met the public alone, and the trend seems to only be getting worse.

In the healthcare sector, the problems seem to be particularly acute, with health and community workers vulnerable to increasing levels of abuse, creating anxiety, stress and stress related health problems, low staff morale and high staff turnover. A survey release this month shows that 52% of nurses believe the risk of abuse has risen in the past two years and that, shockingly, one third have been assaulted in that time.

For the employer the threat is three-fold. First the effect of staff leaving or taking increasing time off for stress, injury or illness. Second the effect of litigation, both by statutory bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive and by increasingly litigious employees. Third, the effect on corporate image, both internally and externally, (think of Jarvis, Balfour Beatty and Railtrack) research conducted by AXA reveals that a quarter of employers surveyed have been involved in a litigation case.

Of those companies, during 2004 over half were involved in one case and a further 20% were involved in between two and four cases health and Safety legislation puts a legal duty on employers to ensure, so far as it is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees. Employers must consider the risks to employees (including the risk of reasonably foreseeable violence); decide how significant these risks are; decide what to do to prevent or control the risks; and develop a clear management plan to achieve this.

While this is often difficult enough for employees working in their employer’s premises, it is far more so for those working away from those premises and thus from their line managers’ direct supervision and support. Although crime statistics overall have fallen in recent years, a close look at the figures shows that serious crime against the person has increased.

A recent survey for the Suzy Lamplugh Trust shows that, startlingly, one in 10 of all lone workers in the health, local government and housing sectors have experienced some kind of physical violence ranging from punching and kicking through to pushing.

In the housing sector, some 11% reported that a sometime in their careers they had been held against their will, while in local government 9% said they had been threatened with a weapon. Just within the NHS as many as 100,000 staff work alone everyday. In 2005, then health secretary John Reid claimed: “I am determined to do everything within my power to stop NHS staff suffering from violence and abuse. They dedicate their lives to caring for the sick and in return they deserve respect. Anybody who attacks our staff will face tough action and the possibility of jail.”

Current Health Secretary Alan Johnson admitted this month that morale in the NHS was at rock bottom, and with plans on his agenda on “making care more accessible and convenient”, this could point to a greater need for care givers to tighten their safety guidelines and procedures.

{mospagebreak}Care workers, constantly visiting the public are particularly at risk. Angry, stressed patients and their families find it difficult to keep their calm when being told bad news or letting off steam at the unfairness of their situations. It is vital that care workers, being exposed to this kind of risk have the right tools for their job – safety training and safety backup in the form of a personal alarm or other technology.

In 2004, one city council was forced to pay £200,000 to a lone worker who was assaulted while working unaccompanied. Many others, some involving claims into 7 figures, have been settled out of court without the accompanying bad publicity. The publicity surrounding cases that do make it to court reverberates long after the case is over. The impact of negative news coverage on external audiences and on staff themselves is enormous.

The AXA report also commented that; “Despite the risk of litigation, almost a quarter of SME’s admit that they are not aware of the extent of their liabilities as an employer. Our research shows that too many companies are unnecessarily exposing themselves to the threat of being sued for compensation. The cost of bringing or defending a legal action can put serious financial pressure on a business, whether it eventually wins the case or not.”

So management should be under no illusion that they need to take steps to protect themselves against compensation and corporate negligence claims and take their responsibilities towards their staff seriously. How can employers best deal with these issues efficiently and cost-effectively?

Training and information is important in the first instance. Risk assessments of the tasks of the lone worker are essential while personal safety training can help the employee learn how to judge a situation, be aware of surroundings and learn conflict resolving or defusing techniques.

Sharing of information between employees, and with external organisations and professional bodies, such as the police is also vital. This includes letting staff know where lone workers are, sharing experiences and concerns and using an early warning system to identify potentially violent clients, problem areas or difficult situations.

But no amount of preparation can substitute for good communication on the ground so that lone workers have a quick, easy, convenient and effective way of summoning help when needed.

Technology has advanced rapidly in recent years so that mobile phones are no longer the best solution. Personal alarms are growing in popularity as they make staff feel more confident about their personal safety, and new high-tech types of alarm provide a flexible and effective answer. The most sophisticated devices now available are multi-functional: they can pinpoint the user’s location, open up a two-way communication with an emergency response centre and allow an operator to summon help on the user’s behalf.

The number of people working alone is increasing, but better training, improved management, sharing of information and the increasing use of personal safety alarms means that employers now have the tools to offer their employees reassurance, peace of mind and the confidence to go about their daily job of work. In an unsafe world, exercising this duty of care towards employees is not just advisable – it’s essential.