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Keeping lone workers safe in hazardous environments

Author : Naz Dossa, CEO, Peoplesafe

25 September 2020

While organisations are now getting back to business post-lockdown, ongoing social distancing rules and increased health and safety processes mean that for many, it’s not ‘business-as-usual’ yet. And while these new measures are necessary to reduce the risk of Covid-19, they may actually expose some workers to new risks, as it’s likely that the number of lone workers will rise.

Workers that are accustomed to working alongside others may find that they’re now required to work alone, either due to depleted workforces (as employees may be shielding or self-isolating) or social distancing limitations making it impractical for them to work in the same space at the same time as their colleagues. For those working in hazardous environments lone working can make their roles even more dangerous. It’s therefore crucial for employers and employees operating in hazardous environments to take extra precautions to protect staff that are now working alone. 

Measuring risk in hazardous environments

The Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations (DSEAR) defines a hazardous environment as ‘any place in which an explosive atmosphere may occur in quantities such as to require special precautions to protect the safety of workers’. Put simply, any environment where there are flammable gases, mists, dusts, liquids or vapours in the atmosphere should be treated as hazardous. 

Businesses that require workers to operate in such an environment must carry out a hazardous area study. This should include an analysis of the different levels of hazard in that area, which the HSE classifies from Zone 0 (an area in which an explosive gas atmosphere is present continuously or for long periods) to Zone 2 (an area in which an explosive gas atmosphere is not likely to occur in normal operation). 

Reducing the risk for lone workers

Clearly, the risk within these kinds of environments is already heightened, but when workers are required to work alone they may be at even greater risk because there may be nobody to call on if something goes wrong. As a result, it’s likely to take longer for lone workers to access help if or when they need it, which could lead to more serious or even fatal injuries. 

While there are no specific health and safety regulations relating to lone workers, employers have a duty to include risks to lone workers in their general risk assessments and put provisions in place to protect any employee that’s required to work alone. Employers that are currently undertaking fresh risk assessments should refer to the HSE’s latest guidance in relation to lone working, which was updated in March 2020 and advises employers to ‘train, supervise and monitor lone workers’, as well as ‘keep in touch with them and respond to any incident’.

Finding the ideal personal safety device

Many employers of lone workers put this advice into practice by providing their workers with personal safety devices or apps, which enable them to raise an alarm if they suffer an accident or injury while working alone. Not all personal safety solutions are equal, however, as features vary across devices. Features like fall detection (which sends out an automatic alert when the device records a sudden impact followed by immobilisation for a certain period of time), two-way audio communication and the ability to locate the device through GPS can make a real difference to lone workers’ safety. 

Those operating in hazardous environments must consider their options even more carefully, because although standard personal safety devices can be incredibly useful for those working in low-risk environments, many are simply not suitable for explosive hazardous environments. This is because electrical devices often create sparks, which could cause a fire in high-risk areas. 

Consequently, it’s imperative that personal safety devices provided to workers operating in hazardous areas are intrinsically safe. Intrinsically safe equipment is designed so that it’s incapable of releasing sufficient energy to cause ignition, whether it’s used in a Zone 0 or a Zone 2 environment. Employers looking to invest in these devices should look for options that are ATEX-rated, as this certifies that the device has undergone the extensive health and safety verification required to certify a product as safe for use in hazardous environments.   

Naz Dossa, CEO, Peoplesafe
Naz Dossa, CEO, Peoplesafe

This could be a standalone lone worker device which includes features such as automatic fall detection, a dedicated SOS button and 24/7 monitoring. Or, for businesses that have invested in ATEX-rated smartphones, installing personal safety apps on these phones could be a more cost-effective solution. 

The importance of employee engagement 

While many employers take the issue of health and safety extremely seriously, employees that are required to work on their own in a hazardous environment should feel empowered to advocate for their own safety if necessary, because even the most detailed risk assessments won’t cover every potential health and safety risk they may face.

It’s possible that as more workers are required to work alone, new and unforeseen health and safety issues will arise, and these workers must be able to flag it to their employer immediately. Employers should therefore strive to create an open conversation around health and safety, to encourage their entire workforce to ask for any additional training or equipment they feel they need to be able to work safely.

Those that are provided with a lone worker safety device should be well-equipped to handle any issues that may arise while they’re working solo, but only if they know how to properly use the device. As with many aspects of health and safety, this means providing employees with comprehensive training in how and when they should use their personal safety device. Rather than trying to handle a dangerous situation themselves; staff working alone should feel empowered to use their device. 

The issue of providing key workers with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) has been a hot topic recently, and rightly so. As workers return to hazardous environments, employers must be equally robust in providing lone workers with the PPE they need - whether that’s an intrinsically safe personal safety device or a mask and gloves.

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