Lone worker solutions: distant early warning
Written by: Simon Creasey | Published:
Worker on construction site using wireless device Comms giants like Nokia have developed technology like the MulteFire-standard UE to allow construction sites to set up temporary private wireless networks (credit: Nokia)

Simon Creasey speaks to solution developers about the ongoing evolution of ‘lone worker’ technology to help protect those working in the local government space.

Over the past 18 months, huge swathes of the UK population have in essence become what might be referred to as ‘lone workers’.

They have been forced to operate from home offices, spare bedrooms and kitchen tables, away from their colleagues while the pandemic raged. But now, as the world gets back towards the semblance of normality, the idea of ‘lone working’ is starting to re-acquire its traditional meaning.

In other words, referring to those who regularly find themselves working away from the office, often in hazardous or difficult environments. This includes the tens of thousands of people employed by local authorities, delivering vital local services up and down the country on a daily basis.

Those working for local authorities face unique challenges across the course of their working day. They therefore require unique technology to mitigate those challenges and risks. Taking those working in the community as an example, people are acutely aware of the great personal risks that have been taken on during COVID-19.

What many people might not know, however, is the volume of extra work that has been carried out over the past year or so.

Credit: Solo Protect

Discussing this, UK marketing manager at lone worker technology specialist SoloProtect, Hannah Southwell, says: “Local authority staff have had to get involved in everything, from helping to organise grocery deliveries to dealing with anti-vax protesters at test and trace sites.

“At the same time, some local authorities have had to change or reduce certain services, which has [sometimes resulted in] agitation from the public. All this, combined with workers isolating because they’ve actually contracted Coronavirus, has resulted in an increase in lone working and pressure on local authority staff.”

Different environments

The roles that these local authority lone workers carry out can vary wildly, from social work support through to parks maintenance.

Needless to say, the range of different environments in which this work is done also varies as well. It is therefore crucial – according to Gavan Murphy, director of marketing EMEA at Globalstar – to have absolutely the right technology for the right job.

“Local authority workers sometimes need to do their jobs in remote, isolated, and/or difficult-to-access locations where conventional communications networks might not reliably reach,” Murphy says.

“Furthermore, if the work environment is inherently dangerous or prone to risks, these factors need to have a huge bearing on the type of lone worker communication and safety solution they need. That could include work such as forestry, resource management or construction.”

Another factor in the successful roll-out of lone worker solutions is that the users themselves must have confidence in the technology.

Discussing this, head of innovation and business development at PMR Products, Ola Gwozdz, says: “It is paramount that the end-users are involved in the selection and testing of the solution so that they can feel safe when using a specific technology in their work environment.

“Female workers, for example, might be exposed to different sets of risks to male workers. It is therefore important that they are given voice to express concerns about potential issues at the requirement scoping stage.”

Not one size fits all

Given the huge range of environmental, geospatial and social variables, it would be unreasonable to assume that there would be a ‘one-size fits all’ solution. Therefore, all parties – both users and those involved in procurement – need to understand both the chosen technology’s capabilities and its limitations. This could include coverage black spots, battery life, latency and so on.

As indicated, the first step for any local authority considering procuring lone worker devices is a complete risk assessment to identify hazards faced by individual workers. That is true for any technology in this field, including wearable bodycams and smart ID badges, or even an app on a smartphone.

Naz Dossa, CEO of Peoplesafe, says: “For higher-risk employees, authorities could consider integrating lone worker protection with additional technology such as body-worn cameras to capture video evidence. This also acts as an initial deterrent to violent and antisocial behaviour.

“Likewise, for drivers, authorities could consider dash cameras. These can be integrated to an alarm-receiving centre, providing nationwide support, 24/7. Again, this should be a consultative process whereby the technology provider learns about the users’ need to be protected, and the risks they are facing.”

Dossa adds that after this initial ‘discovery phase’, appropriate solutions can then be suggested to ensure the right level of protection.

“For example, if employees are consistently working at height, a solution with fall detection would be advantageous. Whereas if they are often working outside in the elements, having a device that is waterproof might be suggested.”

'Horses for courses'

SoloProtect’s Southwell agrees that when it comes to procuring lone worker technology, it is very much ‘horses for courses’. At the same time, she is also keen to point out the importance of remembering that the safety device is only one part of the wider solution.

“Local authorities will need to consider what features their colleagues need in addition to the ability to call for help in an emergency,” she says. “For example, some who regularly go into areas with low signal may need a monitoring timer function. This is set by the user with an alert being raised upon completion of the timer if the process is not manually cancelled.

"A lone worker solution will only be a success if employees understand the inherent value"

“However, it’s usage that truly mitigates risk. A lone worker solution will only be a success if employees understand the inherent value and follow policies and procedures. Local authorities should therefore involve employees in the discussion about which solution would work best for them.

“Early consultation can support the onboarding process once the solution is up and running. It can also support managers and team leaders to implement the necessary policies and procedures and drive a positive health and safety culture across their teams.”

Ensuring buy-in

Another key factor when it comes to the roll-out of lone worker technology is making sure that users buy into it. This comes from the aforementioned consultation, as well as ensuring that the technology is easy and intuitive to use.

In addition to talking to teams themselves, however, organisers also need to do their due diligence with potential suppliers, asking them about both features and limitations. For instance, does the equipment only work in urban/suburban areas benefiting from good GSM mobile signals?

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“If the public authority work needs to be done some distance from a city centre, mobile signals can get patchy,” says Globalstar’s Murphy. “Safety managers therefore need to ensure that the solution they choose offers reliable connectivity and communication across all locations.

“If staff carry out their duties in remote or isolated areas, it is likely that GSM mobile networks will have inadequate, unstable or even non-existent coverage. If the local authority really wants to safeguard workers without interruption, [I believe] only satellite communications can deliver reliable coverage and ubiquitous reach.”

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To this end, Gwozdz urges local authorities to request environmental tests.

“These should subsequently be assessed and written into risk assessments for specific tasks or environments that the lone workers might find themselves in.”

Lack of funding

Of course, one final challenge being faced by local authorities is a continued lack of funding. Needless to say, this in turn has a knock-on impact on their ability to invest in cutting-edge equipment. This is something which has been obvious to Murphy across the course of the past few years.

“With operations budgets always under pressure – and expenditure of public money always the subject of extra scrutiny – price and cost-effectiveness are always considerations,” he says.

There is good news in relation to this, however, with increasing demand for the technology potentially leading to a reduction in cost. Naturally enough, this will make it more accessible to users.

Likewise, there will also likely be improvements on the technology side itself. For instance, the battery life of these devices is expected to improve significantly, with user interfaces also becoming easier to operate.

Discussing what might happen going forward, Don Cameron, CEO of StaySafe, says: “We’re continuing to focus more effort on simplifying the user experience, for instance incorporating Siri.” He also claims that there are “some exciting new ways” satellite devices can be used.

Meanwhile, Dossa says: “There is a clear direction of travel towards a more technology-focused health and safety culture. This has also been – naturally – coupled with a dramatic change to the workplace caused by COVID-19. We are therefore working towards connected and integrated solutions which enable employers to keep their people safe wherever they are.”

The pandemic has made employers increasingly aware of the importance of employee wellbeing. Indeed, it would be fair to say that organisations, quite rightly, are taking their duty of care more seriously than ever.

With that in mind, ‘lone workers’ from all sectors – including those tens of thousands who work for local authorities – look set to benefit from this renewed concern for their safety. This can only benefit the technology industry.

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