Given the many industries field service straddles, the crossover of its employees into lone working is huge. Field Service News’ Mark Glover looks into this area of health and safety and discovers how technology - and positive human engagement - can play a huge part in its successful implementation.
The last five years has seen a shift in worldwide attitudes to health and safety. Emphasis has shifted from ‘safety’ to ‘health’ with more focus placed on long-latency diseases such as asbestos-related workplace cancer and musculoskeletal conditions such as tendonitus. Employee wellbeing and mental health is attracting greater awareness and safety professionals are having a stronger role at board level, with CEOs understanding the business case for a robust health and safety system.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is an agency of the UK Government’s responsible for regulating and enforcing health and safety law. As well as providing information and guidance, they also investigate workplace incidents and accidents and bring forward prosecutions if a company has been in breach of legislation.
Having spent five years as a health and safety journalist, I have seen the profession and HSE come in for criticism for pandering to the Nanny State and stifling society with its regulation. As such, the sector gets a bad reputation, not helped by UK subeditors keen to brandish the “health and safety gone mad” headline above a piece on a children’s party or a village fete being shut down. Often though - and newspapers will fail to report this - the reason for intervention is justified as ultimately, lives were most likely at risk....
Legislation and lone working
In the UK alone, it is estimated there are six million lone workers in the UK, and approximately 23 million in the US. Workers sent to fix a coffee machine, lorry or an offshore wind turbine classifies them as a lone worker; the spectrum of lone vocations is a vast one and those in field service will often come under the lone worker category.
"Employers are required to provide a duty of care to their workers and to do all that is ‘reasonably practicable’ to protect them..."
In the UK, health and safety legislation is underpinned by the Health and Safety at Work Act. Employers are required to provide a duty of care to their workers and to do all that is ‘reasonably practicable’ to protect them. In the sphere of lone working, there is no specific legislation as such. Speaking at a a recent lone worker safety conference in London, Sean Elson, a specialist Health and Safety Lawyer at Pinsent Masons said: “Most of the issues that I see around lone working are seen through the prism of the general duties of the Health and Safety at Work Act.”
And while the law, according to Elson “remains stable”, what is expected as ‘reasonably practicable’ is changing. “It does not stay the same. It is constantly moving,” he said at the same conference. “What is it we have to do to satisfy our duties?” The introduction of British Standard 8484:2016, the country’s Standard for Lone Worker safety devices, has further ring-fenced the effectiveness of lone worker solutions in the UK. Companies offering technology-based solutions have to adhere to the standard, a key requirement of which, is that an alarm, once activated supersedes the 999 level of emergency response, and be directed immediately to the relevant control unit, guaranteeing an appropriate police response.
Craig Swallow is Managing Director of SoloProtect, a company providing lone worker technology solutions in the UK and US. Clients include Sky, Domino’s Pizza and department store John Lewis. Typically, the end-users are working alone; sent to fix satellite boxes, deliver pizza and furniture. Soloprotect’s suite of solutions include personal ID tags that incorporate video technology and small fob alarms, which can also be discreetly triggered if an incident occurs.
Other products include an alarm watch system and a lone worker app, that can integrate with mobile workforce management. The firm also provide analytics software that covers usage, training and alarm elements and produces graphically-friendly reports to showcase progress to the CEO or department heads, an important element of a health and safety Manager’s modern role. “Our main point of contact is a company’s Health and Safety Manager,” Craig tells me over the phone.
"Alarms when I first started were very much stand-alone and weren’t really connected to anything, they were literally press a button and hope someone hears it..."
“They have always had the desire of providing their management team with the benefits of using the technology, and now they can provide a clear dashboard that justifies the ROI.” I ask Craig how open clients are to adopting new technology? “You’ve got the whole spectrum. Some are scared, some are really progressive. I was with a client yesterday,” he says, “and I was showing them what benefits they would get as a set of managers would be and they immediately got it.” So how much of an evolution has there been in the lone worker technology “It’s been massive,” says Nicole Vazquez (pictured), an expert in Lone Worker behaviour.
“Alarms when I first started were very much stand-alone and weren’t really connected to anything, they were literally press a button and hope someone hears it. Then it got a bit smarter and pressing that button would make sure somebody hears it. Now it’s connected to GPS and some companies will link it into their tracking and their productivity.”
Nicole, who runs Worthwhile Training, a training and consultancy firm specialising in lone working and security, however has seen a down-side to the employee tracking features. “If you’re giving somebody a device for safety but they also know that you are using it to monitor productivity too, then it can feel a little bit disingenuous from the end-user’s point of view,” she suggests.
Convincing workers that the technology is a compliment rather than a hindrance is an ongoing challenge in the lone worker arena and Vazquez tells me of a client, a kitchen appliance manufacturer, who gave engineers tablets to register their arrival and departure at a job and to take pictures before and after to prove no damage occurred after completion. Ultimately the technology was there to protect workers, but it wasn’t perceived that way.
"Rather than it being a spy, it would be their witness. The difference between those two words is huge..."
“When we talked to the engineers about it, they said they felt uncomfortable,” Nicole remembers. “We took the angle that this was about protecting them.” However, after the workers said their safety wasn’t an issue, Nicole took another approach: “We asked them if they had been accused of, for example, causing damage when they hadn’t, and suddenly everybody wanted to have a conversation about it.” She continues: “Rather than it being a spy, it would be their witness. The difference between those two words is huge. It’s not somebody keeping an eye on them, it’s somebody keeping an eye out for them.”
In the States, employees are perhaps more cautious about being spied upon while working. Swallow suggests the role of Unions has made workers more aware of such technology. “In lone working,” he says, “you still have the same challenges – the same in field service - of workers wary of being tracked. I would offer that it’s a greater concern in the US because the Unions are very powerful.
The engagement, therefore, between both parties is often a greater consideration in America.”
But what about the advantages of linking lone worker and field service technology? Efficiency and compliance can surely compliment a health and safety solution? Swallow, suggests the engineer’s tablet or rugged laptop aren’t quite suited to the lone worker discreet hardware just yet. “It’s not an ideal terminal to use from a health and safety or alarm perspective,” he says, “but if you could create relationships between our system and the field service system, whether that’s sharing information about known-location or risk, for example then there could be advantages.”
"The potential of IoT and machine learning on lone working technology is an exciting one..."
Expanding further, Craig recalls a client, a large rail operator, who require confirmation that track-side maintenance is being carried out by an engineer with the correct training and credentials but they also want to know when the job is being carried out. “They want to use our device,” Craig explains, “because those individuals are lone workers so there’s a health and safety angle too.” “It’s also about audit. They [the client] are managing a complex chain of sub-contractors and sub/sub-contractors. Ultimately, it’s about making sure they’ve got a full audit trail and the task in hand is being done by the right guy with the right credentials.”
The potential of IoT and machine learning on lone working technology is an exciting one, and Craig, who used to work at PSION, the British company who pioneered the Personal Digital Assistant in the early 80s, is convinced the industry is headed in that direction. “Traditionally, our devices use circuit switch voice and SMS,” he explains.
“We have a data product, where the voice; audio or video call, or whatever data is being sent will come through a middleware platform. The theory is, as long as you’ve got an Application Processing Interface (API), that data can interface with that middleware platform, with as many other platforms as you like.” Nicole is also encouraged by the “joined-up thinking” between safety and efficiency. However – and this is a big question in field service at the moment – she remains cautious about the cross-over between the asset and the engineers.
“It’s about making sure the productivity or efficiency tracking does not blur the boundaries of staff, she says. “People are your assets.” Lone working technology is a part of health and safety which exists so that, after a day’s work, workers go home unharmed. Indeed, as Nicole says, people are your biggest assets and they deserve to be protected to the highest possible standard.