Lone worker safety in the nuclear industry16 July 2020
Naz Dossa explains how the nuclear sector can protect employees as they adjust to new measures following coronavirus
Above: Peoplesafe’s purpose-built Alarm Receiving Centre (ARC)
WORKING WITHIN THE NUCLEAR SECTOR has the potential to be hazardous – and certainly comes under the safety spotlight more than most. Reducing the risks to workers must be a constant priority. With more employees returning to work as the COVID-19 lockdown eases, worker safety is understandably under scrutiny across all sectors. Two notable elements of the current conversation are an acute focus on providing the right personal protective equipment (PPE) and a renewed acknowledgement of the special measures required for lone workers.
There is more awareness of lone working because coronavirus has left some organisations with depleted workforces and altered shift schedules, to accommodate a combination of illness, vulnerable employees and social distancing. The result is a more lone workers than ever before, working under more difficult circumstances than usual. That requires attention across almost every sector, particularly where the risk of physical harm is higher.
Lone working increases vulnerability
The UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines a lone worker as “anyone who works by themselves without direct or close supervision”. This could mean someone completing maintenance work without a team, operating dangerous machinery or working in a laboratory out of earshot of others. It could also mean someone working a night shift where there are fewer people on site to help if something were to go wrong.
There will always be an increased level of risk for lone workers. One of the most obvious causes is that there is no-one to call on if they get into difficulty. Lone workers often need to make ‘on the spot’ safety decisions. But if the right protocols are not in place and they have no colleagues to consult for advice, they become more susceptible to poor decision-making. Should an injury occur when they are working out of the sight and sound of others, it is also more likely that the worker will not get the help they need quickly, meaning serious injuries can become fatal.
Essential, effective safety measures
All employers should understand that they owe a duty of care to employees.
Safe working practices will sometimes dictate that a task cannot be completed by a single employee. Where lone work is considered acceptable, there are extra measures which must be put in place to ensure legal obligations are met.
Barbara Hockey, head of the vulnerable workers team at the HSE, said during her keynote speech at 2019’s Lone Worker Safety Conference, “Lone workers make up an increasing and important part of the workforce, within a range of roles and sectors. Although there are no specific regulations relating to lone workers, the HSE has always recognised that this group of workers can be at higher risk”. While specific regulations may not exist, they are protected under the Health and Safety at Work Act and there is additional guidance relating to this vulnerable group. The guidance has been recently updated by the HSE. It requires that employers must: ‘train, supervise and monitor lone workers’, and ‘keep in touch with them and respond to any incident’.
The first step towards truly effective safety measures is a detailed risk assessment. Companies will have risk assessments and mitigation strategies in place already, but changing circumstances necessitate a review and refresh. For lone workers, this must include an assessment of individual capabilities and any health considerations. Vulnerable workers, such as young workers or workers with disabilities, will usually require a higher level of supervision than more experienced or able-bodied workers, for example. Advice on completing a risk assessment — and on keeping it up to date — can be obtained from the HSE or from lone worker specialists like Peoplesafe.
The second step towards establishing safe working practices will be to consider how to communicate with lone workers, providing them with protection and support from a distance. This can be achieved effectively with a lone worker safety device or app, and a risk assessment can help employers to establish which kind of device, or mix of different devices, will be right for their organisation.
Low-risk work can be made safer through welfare checks and the ability to raise a red alert on a standard mobile app, while higher risk work might require a more robust device with SOS alert function or fall detection. In the nuclear sector, the device may need to be intrinsically safe if it is to be used in hazardous areas. It will depend on where workers are and what they are doing.
It is important to think of expenditure in staff safety measures as an investment in their physical and mental health, rather than a cost.
When it comes to attracting and retaining staff, demonstrating commitment to a safe nuclear sector and protecting the sector’s reputation with a strong and consistent safety record, is the key to success.
Author information: Naz Dossa is Acting CEO at Peoplesafe