There is significant experience within local authorities as to what steps they can take to enhance the safety of their lone worker staff. Evidence from the field clearly points to the necessity for training to avoid confrontation and risk, and for technology to be very simple to use in the event of a crisis. GPS tracking technology has a major role to play in making crucial information available to those reacting to a crisis, yet requiring minimal intervention from the lone worker themselves.
A typical UK Council serving around 150,000 people employs approximately 7000 people of which nearly 1000 are lone workers. The majority of these can be considered to be mobile workers. Council employees carry out a wide range of jobs and may be required to work alone. They include social workers, personal care staff, housing officers, environmental health officers, building control officers, special school teachers, joiners, plumbers, refuse workers and gardeners.
This article focuses mainly on social workers, personal care employees, and environmental health officers. They do various lone working duties:
- A typical council may have over 200 personal care staff whose main activities include visiting the homes of people to help them wash and dress. Their working hours typically range between 7.30 am and 10.30 pm. – Social workers’ activities include talking to people who feel under stress as well as difficult and challenging tasks such as removing children from their homes where they may be in danger, or where care is deemed to be inadequate. Social workers often carry out these tasks at the person’s home. – Environmental health officers visit restaurants to check out complaints of noise disturbances as well as standards of hygiene. This often means working late in the evening.
The most important risks that have been reported relating to these lone workers include:
- People frequently have to work around the clock, including late into the night. – Environmental health officers often find that they need to close down a restaurant if they find poor standards of hygiene. This may mean that a business loses money and it can lead to aggressive and abusive behaviour. – Social workers may have to take children away from their home. This is often a highly intense and emotional experience for parents, children, and social workers. – Personal care staff are often on foot and have regular patterns of visits. This may make them more vulnerable targets for assault.
In practice, some of the incidents that have been reported include care workers being subjected to verbal abuse, including sexual harassment and personal care staff have been mistaken for health visitors carrying drugs and have been attacked.
From the literature, there is evidence that some of the measures taken by councils have been successful whilst others have been found not to work.
Examples of successful and unsuccessful measures include examples in both training and ways of working.
In terms of training, it has been reported that training staff in how to avoid potentially violent situations, how to develop coping methods, encouraging the use of common sense and minimising risk have proved to be beneficial, whereas, for example, self-defence training has shown itself to be less beneficial. Although staff sometimes request this, Councils do not generally encourage it because it conveys the wrong message. This can lead to an escalation in the violence or put both the client and employee at more risk of injury. It also requires regular practice and refresher training.
Adopting technology to help support staff in vulnerable situations has also had mixed results. The key to success here is simplicity. Initiatives that have been well received include a mobile phone lone worker system where employees can programme a number into the phone, and leave a message detailing a visit and the time it will take. The message goes to a central computer. If the employee has not called in to cancel the system after the stated time, the computer alerts someone in reception who tries to contact the employee, then the line manager, and eventually the police, if there is no response.
The phone also has a panic button for emergency use. This links directly to a central reception and allows the operator to listen into a conversation as it happens. The employee uses code words in the conversation to alert reception to organise assistance if needed. Also successful has been the idea of providing staff with personal alarms if their work goes beyond normal office hours. When used correctly and in the ear of an assailant, this gives staff a few vital seconds to remove themselves from a situation should the need arise.
On the other hand, it is evident that although employees were keen to be issued with high-tech phones these had functions which were not necessary for work purposes. More ‘basic’ phones were judged to be more suitable. Even so, in the event of an incident, even with a basic mobile phone, it has been found that these are only rarely useful when someone is being physically attacked.
So from the above it can be concluded that staff and councils alike recognise the benefits of using appropriate technology, provided it is simple to use and requires minimal concentration to use when a member of staff is facing a sudden confrontation. The success of the mobile phone lone worker system can be logically taken a step further by introducing a simple to use device that incorporates both location awareness, ideally through GPS, and communication of that location to a central server.
Equally important, is that the device has a simple one-touch panic alarm for the lone worker that can be activated quickly without a second thought. When the alarm is raised, the location is also already available, and the emergency services can react without even needing to speak directly to the member of staff at risk. A wide range of suitable GPS tracking devices are now commercially available, as part of a secure and reliable GPS tracking service, that can be incorporated into an organisation’s own operational systems.