Controlling risks in modern working environments

Sean Elson, of Pinsent Masons, explains why health and safety requirements need to evolve with working environments and practices.

Lone working is nothing new, but increasingly agile working arrangements and the use of technology mean that employers must remain flexible in ensuring that their arrangements are adequate to control the risks in a modern working environment.

Existing regulations

There is no specific ‘lone worker’ regulation, other than in some very limited and specific situations, such as diving. The legal duties owed by employers relating to lone working are only one element of much wider obligations. The relevant duties have remained unchanged for many years, and the approach required to deal with this sort of activity is no different to the work carried out by other workers.

The key legal requirements are contained within the following legislation:

  • Health and Safety at Work Etc. Act 1974
  • Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999
  • Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998

The reason why these haven't been amended for some time is because they can be applied flexibly, often in ways that would not have been imagined when they were initially introduced. At the heart of these obligations is the need to properly understand and assess the risks that work being done alone involves, and to ensure that individuals are trained and supplied with suitable work equipment.

Technology and the changing workplace

The use of technology can be a vital component in either eliminating the need for lone working at all, or in managing the risks effectively. The rapid development of technology may create opportunities to invest in work equipment that will allow a job to be done by a single operator, but the process of risk assessment and developing the right level of training etc must keep pace with the operational development and deployment of the kit.

These developments mean that employers need to stay on their toes. Although the law has remained stable for many years, the expectation placed on employers as to what is ‘reasonably practicable’ or ‘suitable’ to meet their duties has not stood still. This means that risk assessments and safe systems of work need to keep up with evolving industry standards and best practice. 

Where technology is being deployed to manage risk, employers must also guard against complacency and a feeling that ‘technology will save us all’. A useful issue to consider is whether introducing equipment in this way actually imports a completely new risk to health and safety that has not been identified or thought about at all.

Risk assessments and supporting the lone worker

This consideration of new technology highlights the importance of undertaking a suitable and sufficient risk assessment of an activity, as this remains the foundation for managing it safely.This does not require an approach of undertaking a ‘lone-working risk assessment’, but instead entails looking at the activity itself and assessing the risks of undertaking that alone, in the same way as any other risk associated with it. 

This approach should then inform the devising of a safe system of work, the level of instruction, and the selection and use of suitable work equipment. This is especially important where there have been reductions in staffing levels that may have been led by the need to achieve operational savings or maintain competitiveness. The intention to save costs must not be allowed to ‘wag the dog’ in undertaking work safely. If the level of staff involved has been reduced, and people are being asked to work alone, then an assessment must be made that this can be done safely, and any follow-on requirements for additional training or equipment considered.

The challenge of fluid working practices

Although the process of risk assessing the activity to take account of lone working appears to be straightforward, it is not always obvious that an employee will be working in this way. The workplace may be fluid, with an individual starting work as part of a shift or team who later remains behind, after the others have left. If that worker undertakes an activity using a method devised for the team when the circumstances on the ground have fundamentally changed, then the risks have no longer been properly assessed or managed. 

This example illustrates one of the key challenges for employers in managing lone working – that by its very nature, the worker is unsupervised and remote from management. Again, technology can provide some element of reassurance, and we have seen a rise in the use of trackers for vehicles, CCTV in driver cabs, and bodycams for individuals where they may be at risk of violence at work.

Although these measures can be an important part of an employer's overall approach, they do not remove the need to ensure that individual employees have proper instruction and training on how to carry out work safely, and that monitoring takes place to establish that this is being followed.

About the author

Sean Elson is health and safety partner at Pinsent Masons LLP, @Pinsent_Masons.