Technology and Tips to Help Retailers Address the Unique Risks of Lone Workers

Convenience store cashiers, security guards, overnight stockers, and even some warehouse employees present safety issues that experts say are often overlooked.

One of Amazon’s latest fulfillment centers is described by Forbes as being in the “wasteland” of Castilian Spain. Even by Amazon standards it’s impressive, covering more territory than 14 soccer fields. Pictures only hint at its enormity, and they also suggest its desolation. A worker among the rows and rows of inventory looks as solitary as a thru-hiker on the Appalachian Trail—with help just as far away.

Technology provides labor assistance, allowing each employee to do more on his or her own, and greater automation also allows retailers to manage operations from afar. It helps retailers save money and is a boon to productivity. But it all has a safety-related upshot—more employees in the retail industry may find themselves working beyond the watchful eye of coworkers.

The risk of working alone is clearly reflected in the list of occupations with the most workplace homicide victims: security guard, taxi driver, janitor, truck driver, door-to-door sales or delivery, retail sales cashier, police officer, and so on. And it’s not just violence that is an issue, as solitary work also puts employees at greater risk should they suffer a heath emergency or are injured on the job.

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A casual online news search shows that workers of all sorts are victims of violence: A teenager working at a community pool in Kansas was sexually assaulted in a pool house. A youth counselor at a group home for troubled teens in New York was bludgeoned to death during a robbery. And a man kidnapped a Cumberland Farms Food Store employee in New Hampshire, throwing her in the trunk of his car and repeatedly beating her while high on “angel dust.” Different jobs and locations, but they had the common risk factor of working alone.

Risk Assessments for Lone Workers

Lone workers are defined as an employee who performs activities isolated from other workers and without close or direct supervision. This situation requires special safety and security considerations. Retailers need to ask basic questions to assess the risk: What is a reasonable length of time for the person to be alone? Can one person adequately control the risks of the job? Is the person medically fit and suitable (for example, age or medical condition) to work alone?

Based on a hazard assessment of the risks faced by employees who work alone, a retail organization should establish procedures and institute security measures to mitigate their risk. Of specific concern—because they are often overlooked, say workplace safety experts—are people who don’t always work alone (like taxi drivers) but at times work separately from others for an extended period. These include, for example, workers in isolated portions of warehouses. Some questions a retailer may need to ask include:

  • Do workers sometimes work alone? If so, do they know emergency alert procedures?
  • During facility inspection, did any areas seem isolated? If yes, which areas?
  • In these isolated areas, how far is the nearest person who might hear calls for help?
  • Is it easy to predict when people will be around?
  • Do employees have alarms or panic buttons (personal or stationary)? Are the alarms or panic buttons easily accessible? Is the functioning of panic buttons or alarms periodically checked?

Technology Solutions

By allowing more people to work alone, technology is a source of risk, but it can also help to protect solitary workers. It’s one reason why the market is particularly robust for personal protection devices and response services. But what should you look for when selecting these devices and services?

A key component in the protection of solitary workers is a communication system to allow the organization to check on the worker and for the worker to alert someone if they are in danger or in need of assistance. A check-in procedure is helpful—outlining in what way and how often a supervisor is to communicate with lone workers—but this is both labor intensive and subject to human forgetfulness. So, increasingly, vendors have been offering automatic warning devices that operate if specific signals are not received periodically from the lone worker who is assigned to use them—for example, systems that utilize GPS to track whereabouts of security staff—and other devices that lone workers can use to signal trouble or which automatically alarm by the absence of activity.

Other personal tracking devices can be worn by lone workers on a lanyard or clipped to a belt and allows them to leave a recorded message—when they arrive at an appointment, for example—that gets stored on a remote server and can be retrieved if the user is out of contact or if there is concern for the worker’s welfare. In an emergency, a lone worker can press an SOS alert button that interacts with alarm-receiving software; utilizing GPS it identifies the worker’s location within a few meters.

Bill Moore

Zello, a popular push-to-talk voice “walkie talkie” messaging app that enables communication among workers over their smart devices—and includes Restoration Hardware and Uniqlo among its retail customers—announced in March that it was adding a new emergency “panic button” feature to its service. “Zello customers tend to care a lot about their employees’ safety and welfare, so it’s a high priority new feature for us, as clients lean into their emergency responsibilities,” said Bill Moore, Zello CEO, in an interview with LP Magazine.

Nayeli Cortina

Once pushed, a high-priority message immediately provides the user’s location and ambient audio to the designated emergency channel. “Most panic buttons don’t have a voice integrator, but if there is an emergency you don’t just want to send an alarm, you want to be able to speak to someone or let the emergency team hear what’s happening,” said Nayeli Cortina, Zello product manager, adding that potential beneficiaries in a retail environment include mall security staff, after-hours stockers, backroom employees, warehouse workers, and individuals who open and close.

Standards for Assessing Safety Devices

Global regulatory standards suggest that a retail security team should make the following consideration if it plans to invest in a lone worker safety device. The lone worker (LW) safety device should:

  • Be suitable for the LW environment;
  • Be on the correct communications network for the area in which the solitary employee works;
  • Have the required functions as defined by a risk assessment;
  • Have enough battery capacity for the duration of the job task;
  • Have any special functions as required by the lone work task (such as a “man down” function);
  • Have the ability, in conjunction with the alarm receiving center, to provide a lone worker’s location; and
  • Be provided to lone workers with full training prior to use.

Similarly, the ability to respond in case a solitary worker activates a safety device should undergo evaluation. Will responders be able to pinpoint the LW’s location? Can they listen in when the device activates and talk to the person either directly using the device or by other means such as a cell phone? Are false alerts from the LW device manageable?

7 Best Practices from Safety Experts

Finally, security leaders and safety experts shared some of their favorite safety and security advice for addressing the security of solitary workers:

  • Position workers, where possible, in locations of highest visibility.
  • Where appropriate, use a security system such as video surveillance cameras, mirrors, observation windows, and so on to put workers who would ordinarily be out of view in view.
  • Talk to employees who work alone about their work. Get their input about the work they do; if, when, and why they feel unsafe; and suggested solutions to their security concerns.
  • In your security incident database, include a data field that captures whether the worker was alone at the time of the security incident. You can then run reports to see if working alone is contributing to safety and security incidents and have evidence for the need to change staffing levels or other changes in company policy.
  • Make sure supervisors make regular contact with remote or solitary workers. For supervisors who oversee solitary workers, this makes an excellent performance measure.
  • If workers are to travel to an area that will be out of cell phone range, provide alternative methods of communication.
  • Encourage employees to request assistance from police, security services, or supervisors any time they feel unsafe.

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