Helpline: Sally Drury identifies legislation on lone working and offers advice on monitoring and safety

Q: A shortage of staff now means that we sometimes have to work on our own at remote sites in a large rural location. What advice can you give about lone working?

A: There is no legal prohibition on working alone. Indeed, there are dozens of situations, not just estate work or large gardens, in which people can find they are working alone. Workshop mechanics may spend much of their time working alone. Researchers may have the whole laboratory or trials field to themselves. In horticulture, a person working out of hours or checking on glasshouse heating or nursery security is classed as lone working.

Under the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1999, anyone employing people or engaging contractors has a duty of care for their health and safety. These two pieces of legislation still apply in situations where staff have to work alone.

The act and regulations require that hazards of the work be identified, the risks involved be assessed and measures then put in place to avoid or control them. Such measures may include special instruction or training, supervision or the use of protective equipment. It is important that employers check the measures are used and review the risk assessment periodically to ensure it remains adequate.

It should also be noted that the responsibility for both the risk assessment and the control measures lies with the employer - no-one else. It is not up to the lone worker to carry out the assessment. However, it is best if they are consulted. Lone workers need to fully understand and appreciate the situation because they are responsible for taking reasonable care of themselves and others affected by the work. Employees must co-operate with employers in meeting the legal obligations.

When a risk assessment shows that it is not possible for a lone worker to carry out the work safely, help or back-up will be needed. Where a person is to work on their own, precautions should take account of the work and any foreseeable events. Emergency procedures should be established.

As well as assessing the site, check that any equipment can be handled by one person and that the person is fully trained in its use. Consider other hazards such as exposure to chemicals or electrocution and the risk of fire or violence. Also consider the worker - are they of sound health, pregnant or disabled? Is their first language English or might it be necessary to make special communication arrangements? When the workplace is remote, it is important to consider how the worker gets to the site and how help would be brought to it in the event of an accident.

The worker should be monitored - visited or regularly contacted by mobile phone or radio - and that includes making sure the worker returns to base or home once the work is completed.

As well as mobile phones and radios, there are a number of devices available to help monitor and keep track of lone workers, especially those in remote situations. There are automatic warning devices that operate if a specific signal is not received periodically, while others raise the alarm in an emergency - these can be operated manually or automatically by the absence of activity. Searching the internet for "lone worker alarms" and "worker tracking devices" will give plenty of options.

- Sally Drury has reported for HW and its forerunner GC&HTJ for 27 years and has spent more than five years testing machinery for HW and What Kit? The advice in this helpline is independent.

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