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The high-value, secure lone worker

12 September 2014

It’s a commonly held view that nothing works in isolation. But the estimated six million people in the UK classified as ‘lone workers’ may well disagree; they’re expected to do it every day. Klaus Allion, Managing Director at ANT Telecom, outlines how investing in a unified communication system that integrates lone workers can make your budget – and your mobile workforce – go further and work harder.

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With a sizeable chunk of the UK workforce required to operate alone in remote geographies and high-risk environments, employees increasingly work in isolation. But, despite the obvious challenges of hazardous conditions, unsociable hours and often poor mobile coverage, some organisations’ support for vulnerable lone workers remains sub-optimal.

Lone working has a particular resonance in manufacturing arenas such as energy, oil and gas, chemical plants and distilleries. In these disparate environments, employees are often required to work on-site at the isolated extremes of production plants, or off-site in the seclusion of the field. Yet whilst physically they may appear cut off from the rest of the world, companies cannot afford for lone workers to be disconnected from the rest of the workforce; they must be available any time, any place and anywhere.

Surprisingly, there is no specific legislation that governs lone working. The Health & Safety at Work Act makes basic provisions – the most pertinent being the need to provide equipment and procedures to control the risks of lone working. But in the main, companies’ processes to support mobile working do little to reflect the wholesale transformation of the ICT landscape.

Many still adopt primitive check-in procedures where lone workers telephone base at agreed intervals to report their whereabouts. Conversely, some companies deploy a ‘buddy-up’ methodology where remote workers operate in pairs, to safeguard against delays and mitigate the risk of unreported incidents. But these methods are flawed and inefficient. And in emergency situations, where speed of response is critical, they are also potentially life-threatening.

Lone solutions

Organisations are increasingly deploying lone worker solutions to improve visibility and contact with their mobile workforce. The breadth of these tools is considerable. Solutions can provide positioning information to help users locate lone workers, alarm systems for when employees find themselves in dangerous situations, and no-motion sensors to provide alerts when a lone worker may be injured or unconscious. For workers operating in explosive atmospheres containing gas and dust, intrinsically safe handsets are available to minimise the risk of unwanted electrical ignition. And since the technologies to support mobile working have proliferated to include GSM, DECT/IP, WiFi and Private Mobile Radio, companies can now reach lone workers regardless of geography, terrain or mobile blackspots. As a result, they can tailor their solutions accordingly. The goal of maintaining uninterrupted connectivity is therefore easily achievable.

Lone worker systems are a sensible attempt to provide round-the-clock protection for remote workers. But, aptly, on their own, they are not enough. The cure for isolation is integration.

Too often, lone worker solutions are commissioned in isolation from an organisation’s broader communications strategy. As such, they lack interoperability and true connectivity. In reality, standalone systems are a self-fulfilling prophecy; they stand alone. Without integration into a company’s unified communications network, lone worker solutions are as isolated as the workers they are designed to protect.

Value of integration

Companies’ continued reliance on ‘island solutions’ means many are missing out on the far-reaching value of integrated communications – and the benefits go way beyond Health & Safety compliance. By stitching lone worker provisions into the fabric of company-wide communications, organisations can drive operational and commercial gains.

Unified communications offer major economies of scale. Rather than buying disparate systems, companies can exploit existing infrastructure and significantly reduce the speed and cost of implementation. Operationally, fully integrated solutions can help plant managers become more responsive to problems in the production line, thus improving organisational slickness. And geo-locational asset tracking technologies can empower managers with increased staff visibility and enhanced performance metrics, improving resource management and driving productivity.

The benefits are not confined to operations. Unified communications can also improve sales and marketing – giving customer service teams instant access to mobile workers, enabling them to respond to customer queries with agility and immediacy. This collaboration can have a direct impact on customer loyalty, brand reputation and commercial growth.

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Remote access

So how do you get there? Organisations seeking to improve connectivity with their mobile workforce should look at the bigger picture. Lone working is just one piece of a bigger communications jigsaw – and the puzzle is unlikely to be completed by the patchwork procurement of individual solutions.

The best approach is to assemble a cross-functional team of stakeholders from across your organisation, and examine your business’s diverse communications needs. The considerations are simple, but the answers are company-specific. How do employees currently communicate? How could that be improved? In which areas could people be at risk – and how can those risks be alleviated? Where could functionality be enhanced to bolster health and safety compliance or drive operational gains?

And once you’ve identified your challenges, how do you tailor a system and implement actions to drive meaningful change? The most effective plans are often developed in partnership with independent specialists that can design customised unified communications strategies, and adapt them in line with changing market dynamics.

With human and commercial risks at the heart of the discussion, an integrated approach is key. It is only through a full examination of your entire communications infrastructure that you can develop a system that keeps your people safe and your business productive.

Unified communications

Forget the notion that nothing works in isolation; the UK’s burgeoning reliance on remote workers provides tangible proof to the contrary. But it’s hard to argue with a minor modification: nothing works well in isolation.

For an optimal performance that protects workers, integrates operations and drives commercial gains, a unified communications strategy is undoubtedly the safest move for a mobile workforce.

Lone workers will, by definition, always remain physically isolated. But your communications systems do not have to be.

Case study: Integrated communications at Severn Trent Water

Although the deployment of stand-alone lone worker solutions is a common and noble attempt to assure employee safety, on its own it is not enough. The most progressive organisations are those that have integrated lone worker solutions into their broader unified communications network, in the process supporting vulnerable remote workers with greater connectivity and renewed reassurance. A great example of this can be found at Severn Trent Water, where a long-standing partnership with ANT Telecom is ensuring that lone worker safety is protected by an integrated system.

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Severn Trent is a leading UK water company, responsible for water management and supply, as well as waste water treatment and disposal. The company maintains 46,000km of mains pipes and supplies around 1.8 billion litres of drinking water each day to around 7.7 million people. Almost a third (32%) of its supplies are from groundwater sources. The company, which operates a number of reservoirs and water treatment plants, also collects and treats around 1.4 giga-litres of wastewater each day across a 92,000km sewer network – to more than 1000 sewage treatment works. As such, the company deploys a high number of lone workers.

To safeguard its growing team of remote workers, Severn Trent has established a long-running partnership with ANT Telecom. The relationship began in the late 1990s with the installation of a pager alarm system for Severn Trent’s Trimpley treatment plant, and has subsequently evolved into the development and maintenance of an integrated lone worker solution across many of its sites.

“We contract ANT to manage all of the service, repair and call-out work to our lone worker systems,” says Mark Purcell, Contracts Manager for Operational Support Services, EM&I at Severn Trent. “The systems are in place at sites where we have no mobile coverage – predominantly our clean water and water production plants. We have also adopted the solution at some of our sewage treatment works where they have no coverage in the dry wells, or intermittent coverage in some of the pipe galleries.”

The lone worker system plays an important role in alerting problems with critical on-site alarms. The solution uses a two-way radio system, incorporating a panic button, tilt detection and a time surveillance system. The system, which integrates with the annunciator panel to pick up hardwire problems, also interfaces with Severn Trent’s SCADA alarm system – meaning that operators can pick up alerts irrespective of where they are on-site. “If any pumps or critical assets fail, the system will radio straight through to our operators to ensure they are aware of any issues. If they are not in the control room, the alert will go directly to nominated radios on site. Likewise, the access gates are connected to the same system – providing cross-site connectivity at all times,” Purcell says.

The communications partnership continues to have a major impact on Severn Trent’s operations – not only helping to mitigate risk and drive productivity and efficiency, but also ensuring the company meets some of its key strategic objectives.

“Health and Safety is a high priority for Severn Trent,” Purcell says. “One of my main annual goals is to reduce lost time caused by incidents and accidents on our sites – and our contractors and partners have a huge role to play in helping us to meet that objective. The lone worker solution is pivotal.”

Severn Trent uses a ‘Balanced Scorecard’ to measure contractors’ performance against agreed KPIs, many of which focus on safety issues. “Our main goal is to ensure that our equipment is working safely. If it isn’t, this inevitably puts our operators at risk – and this is something that we cannot afford to do. That’s why we put in place really tight metrics and timescales to monitor performance,” Purcell says.

With the trend towards lone working showing no sign of abating in the coming years, Severn Trent’s long-standing partnership with ANT Telecom is likely to evolve further in the future, with new technology helping improve performance and increase efficiency.

“ANT service engineers ensure that the solutions integrate seamlessly with our business requirements, and at a more strategic level, the consultancy we receive ensures that our technologies are aligned for growth. They’re a real asset to the business,” Purcell concludes.

About the author:

Klaus Allion has been Managing Director of Buckinghamshire-based ANT Telecommunications for more than 11 years. Prior to this, he held senior positions in a number of UK and international communications companies including Tenovis, Bosch Telecom UK and asc telecom.

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