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Proportional protection

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Landlords must be clear on their duty of care to lone workers, says Emma Burrows of Trowers & Hamlins

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Lone working is a common practice in the world of social housing. Concierges, caretakers and carers are all employed by housing providers and will generally work alone. In addition, staff looking in on residents as part of their duties will be alone during these visits.

The needs of lone workers are different to those of employees who are part of a team or share an office environment, and it is essential that proper measures are put in place to ensure that their working practices are effectively managed.

It is important that lone workers are not put at more risk than other employees and are operating safely. The law places general duties on employers to do what is reasonably practicable to ensure health and safety.

Controlling risk

A housing provider will need to balance risk against the measures needed to control that risk in terms of cost and time. It is not necessary to take action if to do so would be disproportionate to the level of risk involved.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has produced some useful guidance titled Working Alone: Health and Safety Guidance on the Risks of Lone Working. It states that employers should take account of normal work and foreseeable emergencies, for example fire, equipment failure, illness and accidents.

It recommends that particular issues are considered, including:

  • Does the workplace present a specific risk to the lone worker?
  • Are there any particular reasons the individual might be more vulnerable than others and particularly at risk (for instance if they are disabled, pregnant or a trainee)?
  • Are there suitable arrangements in place to ensure clear communication if the worker’s first language is not English, especially in an emergency?
  • What happens if a lone worker suffers from a medical condition? Will they be able to work alone? In these circumstances it is important to consider whether medical advice is needed and to consider the work being carried out, as well as any foreseeable emergencies that may place an additional physical or mental burden on an individual.

The HSE has published a risk assessment guide which emphasises that a risk assessment is not about creating huge amounts of paperwork, but rather about identifying sensible measures to control the risks in an employer’s workplace.

The first thing to do is identify potential hazards - activities, processes or substances that could injure employees or harm their health. The next step is to identify who might be harmed and to ask employees and their representatives what they think the potential hazards are. The risks will then need to be evaluated.

An employer is not expected to anticipate unforeseeable risks, so any risk assessment should only include what the employer could reasonably be expected to know. Once a risk assessment has been completed and implemented the employer should ensure that it is reviewed on a regular basis.

It is sometimes the case that providers identify risks but do not evaluate them to the same degree or take steps to minimise those risks. So, what steps should be taken?

The HSE guidance on lone working emphasises that training is of particular importance where there is limited supervision to control, guide and help in uncertain situations.

It may also be crucial to enable workers to cope in unexpected circumstances and in situations where there is a potential exposure to violence and aggression.

Supportive environment

A lone worker will not be able to ask more experienced colleagues for help, so an employer should consider putting extra training in place.

It is also important to ensure that the lone worker is sufficiently experienced and understands the risks involved in their work and the necessary precautions which are put in place.

This is an important step to minimise risk; if housing providers don’t offer appropriate training, they can’t defend any claim by showing that the employee has a duty to their own health and safety.

Supervision will need to be put in place. The extent of such supervision will depend on the risks involved and the ability of the lone worker to identify and handle health and safety issues.

Ultimately the level of supervision will have to be determined by the employer and should be based on the findings of a risk assessment. It is essential that a provider sets out limits on what can and cannot be done while someone is lone working and that those limits are supervised.

The HSE guidance states that, as effective means of communication are essential, procedures must be put in place to monitor lone workers.

Measures which an employer may wish to consider are:

  • Supervisors periodically visiting and observing lone workers.
  • Pre-agreed intervals of regular contact between the lone worker and their supervisor.
  • Manually operated or automatic warning devices which trigger if specific signals are not received periodically from the lone worker, for example staff security systems.
  • Ensuring lone workers are given information about emergency procedures and adequate training to cover them.

Implementing a system to ensure that the lone worker has returned to their base or home once their work is completed.
Even if employees are lone working, they are still part of the workforce and illness can arise if they are not treated as such. When deciding on an HR strategy, internal communications or social events, be very careful to include all those who are lone working.

If a housing provider is found to have breached health and safety legislation it can lead to a number of claims. The most serious is criminal proceedings - for which the provider and a director, manager, secretary or other similar officer could be fined up to £20,000 and be imprisoned for up to 12 months.

Employees can also, of course, bring claims against the provider for personal injury suffered as a result of the failure to look after their health and safety.

Emma Burrows, partner, Trowers & Hamlins

This opinion piece was written independently, but first appeared in a chapter sponsored by Alertcom

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