OPINION: Cuts to health and safety – a risk too far?

Prime Minister David Cameron recently commented that he wants to "kill off the health and safety culture for good" in 2012, in order to help reduce costs for UK organisations. Jim Irving, CEO of Guardian24, offers his opinion on the subject of lone worker safety.

The timing of such a drive could not come at a worse time. Recent cut backs in budgets as a result of the economic situation have seen a range of major changes across organisations which have the potential to threaten health and safety safeguards in businesses.

One frequent example of this is the rise in the number of lone workers emerging in the UK as an increasing number of people conduct tasks previously done by two or more before redundancies took effect.

Flexible and remote working is a growing trend in organisations today and recent research from analyst firm IDC predicted that, by 2013, more than 50 percent of the UK workforce will be mobile. The growth of devices such as smartphones and tablet computers, together with drives for increasing efficiency, has led to many people working remotely. Cloud computing is also central to the mobile working revolution, allowing people to store, access and share their documents, data and applications from wherever they are connected to the internet.

But such working styles combined with budget cuts are leaving remaining members of the workforce increasingly stretched and more vulnerable than ever before.

One stark example of the vulnerability of lone workers was published by The Royal College of Nursing (RCN). The research showed that 60 percent of nurses working alone had been verbally abused, and 11 percent had been physically assaulted during the last two years. Cameron’s words then, should be taken cautiously especially by organisations considering cutting their health and safety budgets.

As the RCN figures indicate, across the whole of the British workforce, staff can be put a risk as a result of their working lives, and it’s imperative that organisations identify and respond to these risks, rather than reducing health and safety budgets to save costs.

Lone workers face new and different risks to staff based in the traditional office – be that threats of physical violence as reflected by the RCN figures or risks of accidents. For growing businesses, understanding the risks that lone workers face, and implementing strategies to properly protect them is essential. This can be achieved in a variety of ways, and to date, there have been a number of solutions brought to market to help improve the safety of people working alone. Some have been specifically designed for the sole purpose – such as panic alarms.

However, now, interestingly it is often the mobile technology that freed people from their offices that is

It is often the mobile technology that freed people from their offices that is providing an answer to how to keep them safe as lone workers.

providing an answer to how to keep them safe as lone workers. New developments based on creating additional functionality for an existing device such as a mobile phone or smart phone are increasingly offering businesses a cost effective and efficient way to ensure their lone workers are safe.

This technology allows lone working staff to log their whereabouts, daily tasks and log in and out of appointments. If a task overruns, the system will attempt to verify their safety, and if the user’s safety cannot be verified an agreed protocol will be escalated.

Users can also summon help with the press of a dedicated hot key, in the case of the BlackBerry smartphone solution this can be done even if the keypad is locked. At this stage nominated respondents or an Alarm Receiving Centre can listen live to the incident as is occurs, and the device’s GPS functionality can also be used to pin point the lone worker’s location.

It is vital that businesses frequently reassess their policies to make sure they are realistic for their current operating circumstances. It’s crucial that any systems that businesses are using work practically: for example if lone working staff have personal safety devices, they need to be charged and accessible at all times, and employees must be able to raise the alarm when needed. As well as ensuring systems work for the business, it’s imperative that staff can use them properly. Any technology will only work if those using it are doing so properly, so staff should be properly trained.

So while Cameron’s words may be intended to support and help businesses to grow, it is also of the upmost importance to make sure that businesses continue to identify and protect staff who may face news risks through the course of their work due to budget cuts and efficiency drives.

Protecting lone workers does not need to be hugely expensive, and developments in technology mean that organisations can often use existing hardware, onto which a software programme can be loaded, negating the need to purchase new standalone devices. Through implementing relevant strategies, organisations can make staff feel more secure and less stressed – often leading to increased productivity and improved performance.

While cutting health and safety budgets may save money short-term, intelligent and appropriate lone worker safety solutions can actually lead to a happier, healthier and more efficient workforce – which is surely the key to helping businesses continue to thrive as the economy recovers.