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Safe as houses: Lone worker safety

Getting out into the local neighbourhood is an integral part of a housing provider’s day-to-day operations but while most are on top of staff safety in the office are they doing enough to protect employees when they are out and about? By Michelle Gordon

 

WORKPLACE safety and the wellbeing of employees have come a long way in recent decades and health and safety is high on the agenda for most companies. But all too often organisations don’t have clear policies in place to safeguard the wellbeing of staff, away from the main base of operations.

For many social housing professionals home visits and getting out into the community is a key part of their job, even more so since the introduction of welfare reforms, but lone workers can face a host of dangers, from an accident while driving between sites to an assault. The responsibility of employers to provide employees with information on risks to their health and safety applies wherever the worker happens to be carrying out that work, said Rachel Griffin, chief executive of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust.

The charity was set up in 1986 by Diana and Paul Lamplugh, the parents of Suzy Lamplugh, an estate agent who went missing after leaving the office to show a client around a property. Suzy was never seen again and was legally declared dead in 1993.

“The Trust was set up because her parents thought there were some really key lessons that we needed to learn from Suzy’s disappearance about personal safety at work,” explained Griffin.

The first was that there was no procedure in place for staff to let their colleagues know  when they were due back from an appointment, so there was a significant delay in the alarm being raised. Secondly the man that she went to meet was known in the diary as Mr Kipper, which was an assumed name, and no one had checked out his identity, let alone whether he presented any kind of risk.

Driven by a desire to address such issues the Lamplughs set up the Trust, which has grown significantly over the last 30 years. It is now the UK’s foremost personal safety charity and, as well as campaigning for changes that make people safer, and running a national stalking helpline, it provides lone worker safety training to a range of organisations, including housing associations.

“I wouldn’t like to speak for housing associations per se but I think for a lot of professions, which are caring professions, which are delivering a service, particularly delivering a service to people in the most vulnerable circumstances you can end up with a sense that we must deliver the service at all costs,” said Griffin. “I think we would very much draw the line and say you must deliver the service as long as it is safe for you to do so, so that is the philosophy in which we like to work.”

There is a legal requirement for employers to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety and welfare of their employees at work and while there is a tendency to think of hazards in the workplace in terms of things that might fall on your head or that you might trip over, the responsibilities apply just as equally if workers are being sent out into the field.

Employees need to be made aware of any risks that they face while out and about and employers have an obligation to put in place preventative and protective measures including emergency procedures.

“Due to the nature and the range of the work carried out, it’s possible for staff to be faced with various threats to their safety,” said Andrew Tootell, health, safety and environmental manager at Two Rivers Housing.

“It is possible our front-facing staff will have to deal with aggression, from both customers and members of the public, which may put them in to a confrontational situation where they need a means of raising the alarm. Alternatively, staff members may have an accident which affects their ability to get to a phone and call for help.”

Around 70% of staff at Two Rivers are classed as lone workers covering a wide variety of roles including repairs operatives, grounds maintenance staff, neighbourhood housing assistants and income collection advisors. It uses a lone worker device called Skyguard, which combines GPS with two-way communication, to keep track of staff’s whereabouts.

“Users’ positions are plotted onto a map every 30 minutes, or when they choose to manually, which is then accessible to their manager via an online system. The system allows managers to look at their team members’ positions whenever required, and monitor usage,” said Tootell. “Any lone worker, who has not ‘checked in’ by the end of the working day, should be monitored by their manager until they have done so.”

While serious physical harm is very rare, frontline staff can face verbal abuse and direct threats of harm said Ian Rabett, head of health and safety at Nottingham City Homes (NCH), where about 60% of staff are classed as frontline workers. Their primary role involves working in tenants’ homes or on estates without direct supervision in positions including housing patch managers, craft operatives and rent account managers.

All NCH vehicles are fitted with location tracking and front and rear cameras and all staff are issued with some form of mobile communication. Those with smart phones (this currently doesn’t include craft operatives but the intention is to roll this out to all lone workers this year) use a lone worker app developed by ANT Telecommunications Ltd and managed by Nottingham City Council’s 24-hour security centre.

“This allows employees to raise an emergency alert at which time their location can be pinpointed and an operator can hear what is happening and see if it is any part of Nottingham covered by CCTV,” said Rabett.

Technology has a valuable role to play, said Griffin, but it is also important to ensure that staff have the tools and the confidence to avoid risk in the first place. “Risk assessment, checking in, thinking about what you are there to do, thinking about your body language, thinking about how you will get out before you get in, all of that stuff should really reduce the chance that you will need to use one of those systems,” she said.

“Diana Lamplugh famously said personal safety is often just a case of common sense but it is often not common practice, so it is about working through what if and then writing that down.”

A lone worker policy is in place at Two Rivers, setting out the responsibilities of individuals and managers and outlining key control measures that can be taken to protect lone workers, as well as emergency procedures and instructions, should contact be lost between an individual and the office.

At the Suzy Lamplugh Trust a buddy system is in place for workers, which means that nobody leaves the office without their buddy knowing where they are going and when they are due back.

“Their buddy knows where they are going, when they are getting there, how they are getting there, when they are getting back, when they are leaving, how they are getting back, they know the address they are going to, the number of the person they are meeting and the number of the venue, they also know their next of kin details,” said Griffin.

“So essentially none of us can go anywhere without somebody checking that we have arrived on time, and if we don’t check in, text and say I have arrived safely or I have left safely, phone calls will be made to the person we are meeting, to the venue, to our partners just to check, so with our own low-tech system we do keep track of people.”

Risk assessments prior to visits are also key and staff should be made aware of any potential issues and hazards or previous incidents of aggressive behaviour. Organisations can also put policies in place requiring dogs to be shut away during home visits, or stating that people, other than the tenants, can’t be present during visits, unless it is pre-agreed.

Workers need to be equipped to respond to potential hazards and should always know how they are going to get out of a property before going in. Every job role at NCH is risk

assessed and then put into a category from high (usually unsupervised in customers’ homes) to very low (office based), with appropriate measures put in place for each risk band. The first question to ask, said Tootell, is can lone working be avoided? If not, then organisations need to consider the risks, decide who may be harmed and look at what control measures can be implemented to reduce the risk as far as is reasonably practicable. Risk assessments should also cover emergency arrangements; supervision, training and instruction and monitoring and reviews to ensure that procedures are being met.

“All lone workers receive training in the subject to build awareness on how they should react to particular situations and what to be aware of whilst lone working,” said Tootell. “Each individual will also be issued a Skyguard device alongside this as a means of raising the alarm should this be necessary. Our CRM records any vulnerability or potential risks associated with visiting our tenants’ properties, and will advise if a lone visit is not advisable. Our repairs operatives will have these notifications on their PDA and may be allocated a partner if a pairs-visit is advised.”

Risk can also change depending on the circumstances, said Griffin and thinking about how you are going to manage a situation before going into a property is key.

“if you are in that property to go and serve notice on somebody or to remind them that they are behind with their rent, someone who might be otherwise quite mild mannered might find that a trigger to quite unpredictable behaviour, so thinking about how you are going to manage that and then diffuse that kind of situation before you go in is really important,” said Griffin.

“We talk a lot about the way that we approach situations with our own body language and our tone, how talking to people with respect and dignity can actually really encourage smooth, calm dialogue and that is what you want to have in place if you are dealing with difficult situations so people who might not respond well to bad news definitely don’t need that bad news to be delivered in any kind of an aggressive or dismissive way.

Actually good personal safety comes from good communication and good customer service.”

 

This article first appeared in the April/May 2017 print edition of Housing magazine

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