Lone working is increasingly commonplace in retail environments, as it offers many benefits to businesses. Why employ two members of staff to carry out a task when one will do? In most circumstances, there is no logical reason whatsoever. However, it is always worth considering the potential negative impact that lone working and the associated risks could have on both your staff and your business. These risks may best be addressed by an official lone working policy.
Staff that lone work are statistically more likely to be subjected to physical violence, aggression, verbal threats, and abuse. This may happen as a result of tackling shop theft, dealing with antisocial behavior, or facing angry customers. In the Freedom from Fear Survey carried out by the Union of Shop, Distributive, and Allied Workers (USDAW), many staff reported that they felt uneasy and less confident when dealing with unhappy customers or potential theft while on their own. One shop worker from Wellingborough (UK) listed their experiences: “I have been physically assaulted and pushed to the ground. Verbally abused and spat at.” And it can be even worse.
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Although tragic incidents are extremely rare, they can and do have an impact on the fear levels and confidence of those working alone. Sadly, in today’s society, we have to consider the potential for particularly nasty incidents such as knife attacks, sexual harassment or assault, acid attacks, or even major terrorist incidents. I worked with an organization recently that initially could not convince any of their staff to work the evening shift after a spate of local, aggressive store robberies unless the company allowed staff to work in pairs and provided security assistance. Our intervention had to be delicately handled to persuade staff that there were other more appropriate solutions and that safe lone working was achievable.
Being involved in incidents of robbery where threat or aggression is used can lead to workers considering a change in career or being unable to return to work due to stress. In the court case that followed a robbery carried out by a sixteen-year-old in 2015, where a female lone worker was threatened with a hammer, police commented, “It was a terrifying experience for the member of staff, who was the only person in the store at the time, and she has not worked since.”
Aside from traumatic incidents, it is commonly accepted that working alone (especially for long periods or in situations of high demand) can increase stress levels, intensify feelings of isolation, and have a detrimental impact on an individual’s mental well-being.
Although there is nothing to suggest that it is more likely that a lone worker will fall ill or have a medical emergency, there is a likely increase in the level of harm when help cannot be summoned quickly. Similar concerns may occur if the lone worker has an accident. Without some means of calling for assistance, the consequences of any injury sustained may increase.
A store staffed by a lone worker may also be more likely to be a target for robbery. This would have an obvious direct impact on the revenue of your business. There are other potential costs linked to many of the above risks:
- Business interruption
- Investigation and employee support costs
- Increased employee insurance costs
- Potential for prosecution or legal actions
- Loss of staff (absenteeism and presenteeism) and impact on staff recruitment
- Impact on staff morale, customer experience, and sales
- Damage to brand and reputation
Let me be clear—there is no legal reason why lone working should not occur in a retail environment, and in many cases with the right controls in place, it may be perfectly safe. In fact, it is estimated that today, up to 8 million people are lone workers across the UK, and that equates to 22 percent of the 31.2 million working population. Many of these worker are in the retail sector. If these statistics are to be taken at face value, then 22 percent is a significant proportion of the workforce. My experience tells me that it is probably even more than that. I’m not sure the statistics tell the whole lone-working story.
What Counts as Lone Working?
The first challenge is to identify and clarify what we mean by the term “lone working.” If we are going to manage lone working and any associated risks effectively, we need to be clear on where and when it is occurring.
Many organizations define lone working to be when “employees are alone for a significant period of time.” However, this definition may miss some employees and some activities. The UK agency, Health and Safety Executive, makes no such distinction with regards to timescale. Its definition is straightforward: “those that work by themselves without close or direct supervision.” This may then include lone workers in the retail sector who, as part of their working day, perform activities such as:
- Open up the store as the first person on site in the morning
- Cover for breaks while others are out of the building or off the shop floor
- Work alone during quiet periods
- Reconcile registers and lock up at the end of the day
- Take cash to the bank
- Work in the stockroom away from others
- Deliver to customers’ homes
- Provide measuring, fitting, or other services within customers’ homes
- Respond to intruder alarms
Assessing the Risks
Having identified lone-working activities, it is important to ensure that the organization (and those at a local level) have assessed any potential concerns or risks that could be affected by the lone-working element of the activity.
Robust, task-based risk assessments should help you identify how lone working can impact the risk. For example, if we look at a simple task, such as stacking shelves in a stockroom using a stepladder, one potential risk could be falling from the ladder. The likelihood that the worker will fall is arguably no greater because they are alone; however, the severity of any injury sustained could be made worse if help is not at hand or the worker is unable to call for assistance. Therefore in this instance, lone working could affect the level of severity of harm and therefore the risk.
Now, whether the risk is great enough for you to put in extra controls depends on many things including your level of risk appetite, the ease of putting in relevant control measures, the cost or resource implications, and ultimately how much you care about the risk (“care” not being used as an emotive term but rather to describe your attitude to and tolerance of risk).
For all tasks where lone working is an element, checks should be made to ensure that both the organization and the worker are happy for the task to continue. Formal risk assessments are vital, but they should take into account the views of the people doing the job. A judgment call needs to be made as to whether you manage the actual level of risk or the workers’ perception of risk (fear level). For example, the potential for acid attacks is extremely low, but due in part to the media coverage of recent incidents, accompanied by horrific pictures, there is a high level of anxiety among many people. It would be wise to recognize this fear level and take steps to help people feel more in control and less fearful, even though statistically the chance of an acid attack occurring is low.
Provide a Lone Working Policy
As an organization, you should set out under what conditions you are happy for lone working to occur and, importantly, clearly communicate when you would not allow it. You may decide, for example, that staff should not open or lock up your store alone. If this is the case, then your lone working policy should state this clearly, and your procedures should set out measures to ensure that everyone understands the rule and that the resources are available to safeguard that this does not happen.
An effective lone working policy will use language that is relevant and clear to workers and communicates messages in an engaging way. Remember that it is not the paperwork that keeps people safe; it is the culture of the organization and the actions that people take (which is led by the culture).
There are many ways to control the risks beyond the lone working policy. Required control measures will depend on the type of risk you are aiming to reduce. If we go back to the risk of violence or aggression for a moment, there are some steps that can be taken:
Identifying Hot Spots. When and where might lone working not be appropriate or need extra controls? By reviewing your risk assessments, reported incidents, and local and industry-wide knowledge, you may be able to identify those places and specific days and times when violence or aggression is more likely. Where this is the case, you could consider increasing your staffing levels to reduce the risk and help staff feel more confident. Just remember that doubling the staff does not equate to halving the risk. It is one measure, and in the case of potential aggression, I would recommend looking at other measures to adopt in tandem.
Physical Controls. How might the environment be altered to lower risk? It may be beneficial to install wider or higher counters in some instances. There are, however, two schools of thought on the impact of barriers, and it is worth speaking to an expert in environment design (and remembering the potential impact on customer service levels for some of your customers who may be wheelchair users, hard of hearing, and so forth) and specifically someone who understands the principle of reducing crime and aggression.
Certainly, improving lines of sight can be helpful as can incorporating some discreet or overt forms of access control, safe havens (where staff can retreat to and call for help), and CCTV. Again, it would be wise to seek an expert’s advice and be mindful of the potential impact on customer-service levels.
Training. What skills and strategies do your staff need? Remembering that we are looking at the example of controlling the risk of violence and aggression, this is a challenging but vital part of any controls.
At the time of any incident the lone worker (by default) only has their own skills and abilities to rely on, so we owe it to them to equip them with as many opportunities to learn, to practice, and to improve as we are able. The training that may be necessary ranges from customer care training all the way to major incident response training, depending on the needs of your particular business and your staff.
At the beginning of the continuum, providing staff with excellent customer-care skills may help to avoid some of the aggression they face, especially that borne out of the interaction between staff and customer.
There may also be a need for some basic personal safety training, which helps members of staff to think about practical measures they can take (combined with your lone working policy) to keep themselves safe.
For example, if you do provide a safe haven, have your staff been trained in when and how to retreat to this? The implications of leaving a store empty apart from an assailant can make it a difficult decision for a lone worker to take, and they need to hear a clear message that tells them when the business would expect (and want) them to do so. They may also need ideas and strategies on exactly how to withdraw from a situation to the safe haven without making the incident worse and the next steps they should take once away from immediate danger. It may sound simple, but in practice we know that staff don’t always behave as we may expect, and training that allows them to discuss, rationalize, and practice can be extremely empowering.
Conflict-management training comes in many forms. I suggest that you provide training that focuses on defusing situations and staying safe. This might include threat assessment, situational and behavioral awareness, verbal and non-verbal skills for defusing, personal protection, and exit strategies. We have had some great results with immersive conflict-management workshops, where we combine scenario-based and drama-based learning, which allow participants to encounter aggression and practice strategies to defuse it in a safe environment. Opportunities to learn from these immersive workshops and hearing feedback from professionals and peers alike produce some powerful changes in both attitude and behaviors—increasing confidence and competence.
At the far end of the continuum, you may need to provide training and guidance on what to do if involved in a major incident. Ensure staff know your evacuation, lockdown, and shelter-in-place protocols, and ideally offer them an opportunity to practice a drill.
Lone Worker Devices. What technological systems can help? Many organizations have recognized the benefit of supplying lone workers with devices they can wear discreetly that allow them to call for assistance in an emergency. There are a variety of options to choose from, and the right system for your business will depend on a number of factors, including what type and level of risk your employees face, what functionalities you require, and how much you can spend.
Due to the variety of functionality and quality available, it can be a confusing marketplace for organizations that are searching for a technology-based solution to support their other control measures. According to research from analyst firm Berg Insight, the market for monitored lone-worker protection is a rapidly growing industry.
Developing a Plan
Even with the best controls in place, it is vital to have a plan for how you would manage an incident that involved one of your lone workers. My suggestion would be that you work through the following questions and ensure that you feel comfortable with your answers. Not all will be relevant in all cases as it will depend on the type and severity of the incident.
How would the lone worker raise an alarm (discreetly if necessary)?
Who would be alerted?
How do we get assistance to the lone worker?
What would the responding person do on arrival?
Who would communicate with the emergency services (if necessary)?
How would we manage service recovery?
Who would coordinate the internal communication and media response?
The last one may well have caused you to raise an eyebrow. However, if you are to manage the risk to your organization fully, then it is sadly a part of the story. We need to manage any consequences not only internally but also externally, now more than ever, thanks to social media sites and the instantaneous nature of today’s communication.
Considering the “what ifs?” should form part of your risk-management plan. If lone working is to be successful for your business, you need to ensure that measures are taken that it happens as safely as possible while at the same time considering the implications and necessary actions should things not go to plan.
Lone working is here to stay, and it can be both safe and effective. The trick to making it work for your business is early engagement with workers, clear understanding and communication of the associated risks, and a workable set of control measures in your lone working policy that are supported throughout the business by your actions and your culture.
This article was originally published in LP Magazine Europe in 2018 and was updated February 19, 2019.