Lone working in the rural sector – is it a big risk for my business and if so what can I do about it?

06.11.19

The short answer to the first question is, yes; the statistics are stark. The answer to the second is a combination of assessment and management of risk. However the key barrier to reducing risks to lone workers in this area is complacency. Any attempt to reduce the risks to those working alone must begin with a step back from historic and accepted practice to assess the risks afresh.

The statistics

The rate of fatal accidents in agriculture, forestry and fishing is 19 times higher than the rate of fatal accidents across all industries, and one of the major challenges is the practice of lone working.

It is estimated that across the UK as many as 20% of workers work alone. Many of those will work in fixed work places i.e. from home or in small offices. In agriculture however, workers are likely to be mobile; working away from their fixed base. They are also more likely to be working with large machinery, livestock and challenging natural environments.

It is clear that there are significant risks posed by the combination of lone working and the general nature of agricultural and other land-based work. But what are an employer’s responsibilities in these circumstances, and what can you do to reduce the risk of harm?

Duties of an employer

As with all employment, an employer’s general duties and obligations are set out in the:

  • Health & Safety at Work Etc Act 1974; and
  • Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1999.

The obligation is to identify and manage any risks to the health and safety of workers. Note that the responsibility extends to contractors and self-employed people working in the business - it is not restricted to your employees.

Risk assessment

You must assess all activities in which lone workers will be engaged, including duties that will only arise rarely. You must consider the risks created by the activity and how that might impact on the safety of your workers.

The process should include consultation with your workers to obtain their views of tasks they carry out and the risks posed. It is good practice to record the significant finding of any risk assessment in writing. The assessment should also be reviewed regularly; at least once a year and whenever there are changes to working practices or the working environment.

Controlling the risks

The best way to control risk of course, is to avoid it altogether. Indeed, there may be some risks which simply cannot be mitigated to an acceptable level and in that case they must be avoided.

In the context of lone workers this may mean, for example, that a task just cannot be done safely with less than two people present. Any such task should be identified and measures put in place to ensure that lone workers do not carry out the work.

There will however be some risks which can be mitigated by control measures. Those control measures might include personal protective equipment (PPE), mechanised equipment or specific training.

  • Training

Training of lone workers is more important than it might be for those who work under close supervision. It is essential that lone workers are competent in all tasks they are asked to do, because the opportunity for them to ask for help or guidance is far more limited than it would be in other working environments.

Training should include clear guidelines on when to ask for help and how to do that.

You should set clear limits for which work is suitable for lone workers and which work is not. This must all be communicated to workers and you should ensure that the directions are understood.

Spot checks should be carried out to ensure compliance with the system and there should be a reporting pathway for concerns or breaches of the policy in order that those can be addressed.

  • Communication

A key control measure for lone workers is communication and ensuring that lone workers, wherever they may be, can obtain help in emergencies and also guidance when unexpected things happen.

Such a system should take account of mobile network coverage and the possible need for hands-free operation so that the system is fit for the staff and the working conditions involved.

There should also be a check-in procedure which allows the location of lone workers to be confirmed at regular intervals – again taking into account any limitations brought about by network coverage or operational practicalities. 

Non-employees

Often overlooked is the duty that employers have towards non-employees. This extends to employees of contractors who are working in your business, even on a short term basis.

Those workers should be provided with the same information, guidance and communication pathways as employees in order to reduce the risk of injury to them when they are on-site.

Consideration should also be given to those who are on-site transiently, such as delivery drivers. Those workers should also be given all relevant information to allow them to reduce the risk of injury arising from circumstances on-site or from the fact that they are working on their own.

Record keeping

Record keeping is vital. You should keep records of risk assessments and control measures.

These should not be overwritten when they are reviewed - if something happens, it may be necessary to confirm the system in place previously. You may also need to demonstrate that you have responded to changes in the business and that any risks posed by those changes have been considered.

You should keep full records of all training and instruction given to workers -  and consider having workers confirm in writing that the information has been received, and understood.

Finally, if something does happen, it is essential that all information and evidence is kept. Accident reports, witness statements and photographs should be retained.

Consider everything when identifying risks

Although it may seem trite, the key factor here is to accurately identify the risks created by the operation of your business.

Take a step back, look at the business as a whole and consider everything that is done.

There can be no place for complacency or accepting that things must be done the way they always have been. The starting point is to ask whether something is safe, and, if not, can it be made safe?

Once you have set out a safe system of work, it is essential that you ensure competence and comprehension from all of those who will work in your business.