Are employers doing enough to fulfil their duty of care to an overlooked workforce?

The last 18 months have been truly unforgettable and changed all our lives and mindsets through our collective and individual experiences.

Thankfully, the UK’s successful vaccination programme means employees are now starting to return to offices and travel more on company business. However, even with this hybrid and agile working pattern, employees continue to work alone more than ever before.

This means that, as we move into a post-lockdown environment, it’s now more important than ever to protect the safety and well- being of employees. However, the new and different working landscapes present further challenges to employers and employees alike. Here is the conundrum for the pharma and life sciences sectors: whilst employers have always had long-standing health and safety at work and duty of care obligations to protect their lone/remote working staff – historical evidence shows that in practice, this employee population has been overlooked by employers.

What are the legal obligations?

Protecting the safety and well-being of employees and colleagues when they are working on your behalf, is paramount irrespective of the location where the work activity is taking place.

Not only do employers have a moral duty, but they also have a legal obligation to proactively ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees at work, ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’ – meaning the employer is required to implement measures that will either eliminate or at least reduce, control and mitigate the risk in question. This applies to any work-related activity but from an employer’s perspective it is logical to focus on the ‘higher risk’ work-related activities such as lone/remote working and travelling alone on company business.

Importantly, what is ‘reasonably practicable’ can quickly change as improved methods of addressing such specific risks improve – for instance with the introduction of new technology. Employers are duty-bound to regularly review their policies and procedures to ensure control measures remain adequate, and where necessary can take account of relevant advances in technology and improved practices.

Which employees are designated as lone and remote workers?

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines lone workers as ‘those who work by themselves without close or direct supervision’. This includes drivers and users of various types of public transport, and for many employers will encompass a sizeable number of staff.

Post lockdown, most employers will inevitably have more lone workers to protect, including an additional rise in employees choosing to drive for business and avoiding the use of public transport.

This will also result in additional risks associated with an increase in ‘grey fleet’ drivers – staff who do not receive a company car – using their own vehicle for company-related journeys between different company sites and workplaces, potentially outside normal working and during more unsocial hours, and possibly to remote and/or unfamiliar locations.

What are the real-life risks faced by lone/remote workers?

Whilst the many potential risks associated with the various forms of lone working are generally acknowledged, they have inexplicably taken on an almost ‘white noise’ characteristic and can become ‘accepted’ by both employees and their employers.

It is also interesting to note with the ‘white noise theme’, that whilst driving alone on business is the form of transport with a greater risk to ‘life and limb’ – psychologically, employees (and particularly female employees) may be more concerned about the implications of travelling alone on business outside of a vehicle than actually driving.

Employers (and their employees) are aware of these risks when travelling to and from meetings – frequently outside of normal working hours, during the hours of darkness, to unfamiliar and potentially risky locations, possibly meeting complete strangers and/or being alone in remote or semi-deserted locations such as car parks and empty streets. Employers and employees may have greater concerns about particular groups of employees in some circumstances, taking into account gender, age and location.

These many employee risks are often inexplicably hidden in full sight, and when you talk to companies, they will freely acknowledge that they have had lone working employees attacked, mugged or threatened in broad daylight.

Even when employers have a good awareness of incidents involving their lone worker employees – curiously they rarely do anything new to reassure and/or address and improve the safety and well-being of their at-risk and exposed employees.

However, innovative cutting-edge technology is now available to ‘come to the rescue’ of both employers and employees alike and revolutionise the protection of lone workers.

Why are employers currently failing to protect their lone and remote workers?

There is not an easy or obvious answer to this – especially when remote/lone working carries such obvious employee risks, and employers in the pharma/life sciences sector would be expected to be safety and compliance focused. This is an historical oversight which may be due to a combination of ‘out of sight – out of mind’, the safety and well-being of lone workers not being the designated responsibility of any specific department, and available methodologies being complicated to implement and finally, difficulty achieving full 24/7 coverage.

Some of the more recent methods to manage lone working may include updating process and procedures to include a buddy system, regular check-ins and sign-on/sign-off protocols.

Whilst these can help, they rely heavily on people adopting them as routine practice, and unfortunately reliance on human input is not infallible. Other more technical solutions such as ‘fobs’ that employees can carry, or apps on their phones have been introduced, including GPS location. Fobs can be problematic as the individual has to remember to carry them and these can only protect the employee when carried during working hours.

A phone-based app can be a more user-friendly option, as it will be carried by the individual night and day to provide 24/7 protection. The rapid advance of such technology means this can offer an immense level of protection.

How can the latest automated technology help employers provide extra protection and reassurance to their lone workers?

Historically, to be fair to employers, protecting lone and remote workers in a meaningful way, has been a problematic and potentially complicated process. This has often required the involvement of colleagues and a slow speed of response and predictability, thus falling short of the ideal solution.

A ‘game-changing’ example of how the latest in cutting edge innovative technology can now help employers to protect their lone and remote workers is the launch of automated and AI-supported phone app technology which is conveniently deployable via the user’s mobile phone. This can provide a wealth of automated safety functionality which means employers can now reassuringly and very easily automatically fulfil their duty of care to this overlooked at-risk group of employees around the clock.

An example of a new generation of multifunctional employee safety phone app which delivers this comprehensive reassuring level of employee protection 24/7 is the global multilanguage ‘Applied Companion’ employee safety app.

Employer/employee benefits include:

  • Full protection during and outside of normal working hours and a global reach
  • Automation means no requirement for employer or colleague oversight or intervention at the time of an event
  • Applicable for the protection of lone workers, business travellers and drivers alike
  • Automated ‘crash detection’ for passengers or drivers
  • Programmable ‘safety checkpoints’ for lone workers
  • If user feels at risk or under threat, they can opt to proactively liaise with an around-the-clock emergency call centre
  • Discrete ‘no touch’ emergency SOS capability
  • Delivery of automated training, safety training and/or escalation process or safety messaging to the user
  • Detection of the extremely dangerous activity of phone handling by user when driving
  • AI-learning capability provides recognition of ‘impaired driving’
  • Pre-journey vehicle condition reporting plus post-accident reporting (FNOL) via on-board phone camera.

Where does this leave employers and what should they do?

In the pharma/life sciences sectors, lone/remote working and/ or travelling alone on company business, and driving at work, are demonstrably the highest risk activities employers require their employees to undertake.

Current research demonstrates that in practice the vast majority of employers should be proactively doing much more to protect the safety of both their lone/remote workers, business travellers and drivers.

The recent launch of new cutting edge and highly innovative, automated and AI-supported technology, is a ‘game changer’ when it comes to the ease and feasibility with which responsible employers can now protect this exposed and at-risk group of employees.

There is no longer any excuse for employers not to be proactively taking all reasonable steps ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’ and doing the ‘right thing’, both legally and morally, to protect the safety and well-being of their lone/remote workers whilst fulfilling their employee safety responsibilities and protecting their valued corporate reputation and business brand.

Dr Jim Golby, PhD FCIPD is chair of the multi-award-winning employee safety and driver risk and accident management consultancy Applied Driving Techniques (ADT)