Managing Lone Workers
06 January 2021
On 5th January 2021, in addition to the tougher measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, the Northern Ireland Executive supported a proposal by health minister, Robin Swann to make it a requirement for all employers to conduct a risk assessment where employees are required to work away from their home.
While the Health and Safety at Work Order (Northern Ireland) 1978 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 already require that employers identify and control risks to any employee, ensuring that risk assessments cover working away from home may become a focus for health and safety regulators.
Assessing the risks and controls relating to COVID-19 while working away from home will of course be a key element of this risk assessment. When drafting or updating risk assessments, employers should consider the existing guidance, such as working safely during coronavirus. Assessments must be made on how to control specific risks such as working in or from vehicles or visiting other people’s homes.
Employers should also keep in mind the requirements for assessing risks for lone workers, which is likely to include a large number of those working away from home. The recent updates to the guidance on looking after lone workers is discussed below.
Whilst the term ‘lone worker’ includes those who work from home, it is in fact much wider and encompasses anyone who works “by themselves without close or direct supervision ”. This could include, for example, shop workers, delivery drivers, cleaners or security staff.
With employers across many sectors having to continually adapt to coronavirus restrictions, many have had to review the arrangements in place for all lone workers and may have experienced a significant increase in the number of their employees or contractors that are now classified as lone workers.
In March 2020, HSE(GB) published updated guidance in relation to “Protecting lone workers: How to manage the risks of working alone”.
The guidance provides:
- a new section on how to protect lone workers from the risk of work-related violence;
- more information on how managers should keep in touch with lone workers;
- new advice on the impact lone working can have on stress, mental health and wellbeing .
What is required?
Employers are required to manage the risks  associated with lone working and should, therefore, consult with lone workers and incorporate any relevant factors into their risk assessments, taking account of relevant employees and those engaged as contractors. Appropriate control measures that are identified as part of this process should be implemented.
The HSE Guidance states: "There is no legal requirement to conduct a specific, separate risk assessment for lone workers. However, you have a duty to include risks to lone workers in your general risk assessment and take steps to avoid or control risks where necessary."
Training will also be required along with an appropriate system of supervision and monitoring which may vary depending on the circumstances.
Risk assessments should be reviewed periodically and this may be particularly relevant at this time where coronavirus restrictions are constantly changing and can vary across different locations.
It is worth noting that there may be occasions, involving high-risk activities, where lone working is not advisable (such as when working in confined spaces) as additional control measures are required.
The Impact on Mental Health
In addition to considering the individual lone worker and risks from their work environment, the HSE Guidance highlights at page 7 that lone working can "negatively impact" upon mental health. Employers are, therefore, encouraged to consider putting systems in place to establish "direct contact between the lone worker and their manager". Such arrangements could be agreed following consultation with the lone worker as some individuals may have different preferences.
The HSE Guidance also notes at page 8: "Work-related mental health issues must be assessed to measure the levels of risk to staff. Where a risk is identified, you must take steps to remove it or reduce it as far as reasonably practicable."
The issue of mental health in the workplace is likely to come under continued focus in the current climate as an increased number of people find themselves newly classified as ‘lone workers’. As it is not clear when, or indeed if, working life will return to pre-COVID norms, it is advisable for employers to ensure they have reviewed their arrangements for lone workers and ensure contact, support and the provision of helpful information relating to managing stress, mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.
If you would like any further information or advice on lone working, home working, or mental health in the workplace, please contact Ashleigh Birkett or Ben Johnston from the Health and Safety team at Carson McDowell.
*This information is for guidance purposes only and does not constitute, nor should be regarded, as a substitute for taking legal advice that is tailored to your circumstances.
 Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000