Lone workers are nothing new, having been around since almost the dawn of time when hunter-gatherers were a core part of society, but the frenetic pace at which the world has evolved around lone working and employers’ duty of care has fundamentally changed how we treat health and safety policy for this growing part of the global workforce.
It’s estimated that 6-8 million lone workers are operating in the UK alone and, with 2020 again altering the ways in which we all think about work, this could start to rise sharply in the near future. But that’s still a starting point of around 20% of the population, making it essential that more companies understand proper risk management and how to maximise personal safety for those working remotely.
Widespread tech innovation in spaces such as artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT) and automation has given organisations an unprecedented opportunity to push their lone worker policies into the future, taking care of at-risk workers with ever-more sophisticated tools and solutions that weren’t even available a decade ago.
Automation has revolutionised health and safety in the workplace
It may end up being true that no industry is completely safe from automation and other technological advancements, but it’s also true that - while robots aren’t replacing human workers as quickly or universally as has been forecast by our most pessimistic oracles - automation is being used more today as an augmentation for industries such as healthcare and construction than as a route to making lone working jobs obsolete.
Instead of replacing highly-trained workers with machines that could theoretically perform the same role without all of those ‘pesky’ concerns about health and safety policy and risk assessment, industries are taking advantage of technology’s ability to allow one employee to do the work that may have in the past required an entire team.
As The Harvard Business Review puts it: “Firms achieve the most significant performance improvements when humans and machines work together… humans and AI actively enhance each other’s complementary strengths.”
This has, among other things, led to a growth in working alone, and many employers are suddenly having to think about how to keep this part of their workforce safe.
Despite lone workers being an oft-forgotten part of the economy, there are existing tools available that cater to them and their specific needs. Many companies are avoiding the hefty fines (£125,000 on average) handed out to those found with a lax health and safety policy by enlisting the help of lone worker alarms, for example, as well as other health and safety solutions designed to keep a record of incidents at work.
In many ways, companies that had previously embraced physical technology such as personal safety devices for their lone workers, or software such as workforce monitoring platforms, were more prepared than most for the seismic impact of Covid-19 on the way almost every industry must now operate.
Home working - the new normal?
The emergence of a global pandemic has caused a lot of things to change in 2020, but one of the most significant aspects of society to shift is the move away from office life as the norm. Working from home is now an everyday reality for many and, while some will almost certainly go back to their desks sometime in 2021, many will adopt the new mode of working as their preferred one.
That’s not a bad thing - back in November 2019 an incredible 74% of employees in the knowledge sector said they would be willing to quit their current job in favour of a remote position - even taking an 8% pay cut if they had to.
This creates a lot of much-needed freedom for many people, but it also has the potential to cause a headache for a health and safety executive who’s used to knowing where his or her workers are at all times.
This is where technology comes back into play. Regular contact with remote workers is more essential than ever, and this can take the form of something as simple as consistent video calls and/or giving the employee access to channels of communication that allow them to raise issues of safety and wellbeing. A tool like Protector™ by Vatix would enable companies to implement this pretty seamlessly.
According to the Office for National Statistics, 46.6% of workers reported working from home at least part of the week in April 2020. While that figure will go down, it’s unlikely to return to the levels seen before the pandemic.
It’s hard to imagine any health and safety policy created in the future not having to specifically help safeguard against any potential outbreaks of Covid-19 or a related crisis, which creates the need for a much more nuanced approach. Organisations no longer have the luxury of thinking about health and safety in a linear way, but must instead take into account everything from mental health, the conditions of a worker’s home environment, and whether they have the right technology to perform their roles effectively.
But while the lone workforce may look a little different following the “largest work from home experiment in the world,” the fundamentals have not changed. Protecting workers is paramount to success, and thankfully the technology that can ensure their safety - whether that’s monitoring tools or lone worker alarms - already exists.
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