Chapter 1

History of Lone Workers

March 28, 2020

In this chapter we’ll quickly cover the history of lone working, with a special emphasis on policy and trends that have historically impacted lone workers based in the UK.

The Origins of Lone Working

Lone worker jobs are as old as civilization. Roles like hunting, shepherding, and exploring may have been performed alone for, as far as we can tell, tens of thousands of years.

Lone working may in fact have been the role that set earliest human societies in motion. The innovation of agriculture allowed one person to do the work of many. Instead of hunter-gatherer families individually taking care of their own families, one person could cultivate enough food for several families at once. This gave other people time to take on other roles, making it possible to form governments, armies, and eventually other specializations.

Lone working has come a long way from a solitary farmer working in a field. Today this term encompasses almost any job, from a repair technician commuting to job sites to a developer working from home. From real estate agents to fisherman, journalists to cross-country lorry drivers, the term “lone worker” now describes a category of work that extends to every modern industry. Across the millenia, lone workers have performed hundreds of thousands of unique roles.

Lone Worker Protections

While lone working has existed for multiple millenia, some of the biggest changes to how people worked alone didn’t occur until the last half century.

The rise of modern technologies—like some we’ll discuss in Chapter 2—have made remote work more commonplace and safe.

But perhaps even more impactful than technological change has been the effect of health and safety policies that now protect workers. Over the last few decades, governments have drafted strict laws around employee safety. Many of the most life-threatening dangers of working alone have fortunately been curbed as a result.

Starting in the 1970s, policymakers began instituting laws that offered greater protection to employees, making it easier to avoid the pervasive risks inherent to every job, including but not specific to working alone.

For example, The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act of 1974 was one of the first sweeping policies in the UK to place a higher responsibility for employee safety on the employer:

Generally, the employer has a duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees. The requirements regarding safe systems of work, health and safety policies, information, training and instruction, and a safe working environment are particularly important.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, several additional employee health and safety policies passed into UK legislation. While none of these laws dealt specifically with lone workers, they did require businesses to start taking better care of their entire workforce, which includes people working remotely or traveling regularly.

Today, some of these laws seem almost inhumane not to provide—like ensuring employees have a place to use the restroom or access water. Most of us would consider businesses irresponsible if they neglected to report employee injury or death. But these protective measures were groundbreaking only a few decades ago. Laws surrounding employee health and safety improve incrementally every few years.

A New Type of Lone Worker

In the last few decades, lone worker jobs have continued to expand. For most of human history, lone workers have been characterized by their location. Canvassers had to knock on physical doors. Electricians must visit exact homes and businesses to fix electrical disruptions. Delivery professionals had to bring items from one location to another.

Recently a new type of lone worker job has emerged: location-independent workers. Instead of being a lone worker by necessity, location-independent workers can effectively work from everywhere. This allows coders, writers, consultants, and sales professionals to perform roles that used to be exclusive to offices, from anywhere in the world.

In Chapter 2 we’ll consider the future of lone working, including some of the latest technology that enables new categories of employee to work on their own.