Lone working by its very nature is inherently more dangerous, solely for the fact that there’s no immediate help at hand should something go wrong. The diverse nature of what can go awry when undertaking daily tasks whilst working alone were highlighted in a couple of stories that we came across this week.
A Subway store was fined more than £6,000 after a lone worker became trapped in a chiller overnight. 20 year old Karlee Daubeney was working alone when closing up for the night. It was during this time that she became trapped.
When she realised no one would be coming to her aid she tried to get help with her SOS message in ketchup – hoping it would be spotted on CCTV by security staff. However, the cry for help was not seen and she remained trapped in the store in the centre until the following morning when staff came to open up for the day.
The franchise responsible for the store was fined £6,070 for a breach of health and safety work place guidelines.
Karlee, the lone worker involved said: “At first I was in a state of panic and I was looking for anything that could have opened the door. I was trying to write ‘help’ on pieces of cardboard to slide under the door. I think it was with ketchup or mayonnaise.
Karlee is reported to have been left with physical and mental damage from the ordeal and was told she came very close to catching hypothermia.
She added: “My muscles became so cold I found it really hard to walk for a few days, I had migraines and dry skin around my nose. When I went to hospital the next day I was told I was close to having hypothermia and I made myself as warm as I could when I got home.”
CM Ventures, who have the franchise for the store in Gloucester, have been charged with various health and safety offences including not ensuring, so far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of its employees. The fine included the £4,000 penalty for breaching the Health and Safety Workplace Act 1974.
The court heard staff had not been instructed to always carry phones with them when working alone. Had the store’s lone worker policy instruct staff to carry a phone or other means of calling for help in an emergency, there’d be no doubt that Karlee would’ve been safely tucked up in bed by the time the store reopened. Thus, the business wouldn’t have been heavily fined and this wouldn’t have made the news. Considering most people own a phone, the very minimum is to ask staff to keep it on themselves when working alone. Better still is to equip lone working employees with dedicated personal safety applications or even small personal alarms.
Magistrates deemed the absence of this clause in the lone worker policy constituted a breach of health and safety regulations, and contributed to the employee being unable to escape the chiller overnight. Thankfully, Karlee didn’t suffer serious ill health or even worse, death. Hypothermia and other exposure to the cold leads to a reported 30,000 deaths per year in the UK. Should the worst have happened to the 20 year old, the store and its Director would have faced Corporate Manslaughter charges leading to a business-crippling fine and even a custodial sentence.
In fact, just this week, it’s been revealed that major companies convicted of Corporate Manslaughter will face fines of up to £20m under new sentencing guidelines.
The guidelines suggest that judges should impose fines in relation to the size of the convicted organisation. Under the Corporate Manslaughter and Homicide Act 2007, there is no upper limit on penalties. The £20m fine level will be for firms with an annual turnover of more than £50m, and up to £10m for fatal health and safety offences.
In issuing a guilty plea, the company director and franchisee of the store accepted that the policy in place at the time was not up to standard. It has since been amended. It was heard that the internal door handle on the chiller where Ms Daubeney was trapped had become bent and broken some time before.
Mr Neil Campbell, prosecuting, said: “There was potential for quite serious consequences.”
Chair Mrs Dorothy Marshall said “There was a greater risk of harm which fortunately did not arise.”
Tony Rao – A Consultant in old age psychiatry working for South London and Maudsley NHS foundation trust recently wrote about his experiences in dealing with those suffering from mental illness, addiction or worse still, both. What makes Tony’s situation all the more hazardous is that he often works alone.
Tony describes that a “full risk assessment and a personal alarm can sometimes be your only protection as a lone worker” but with obvious experience in these situations, a ‘gut feeling’ shouldn’t be ignored. Of course, having a gut feeling comes with the knowledge base of working in similar scenarios for many years and a sixth-sense for recognising danger is something that can only be developed after vast experience.
But what about those who are new to the role? Those who previously haven’t worked in the community? They won’t have honed that gut feeling to the extent that Tony has. And why should personal safety be placed in the hands of something so personally subjective? Could you imagine using ‘a gut feeling’ as a line of defence in Court when up against serious negligence claims?
Even with Tony’s vast experience of working in the community, it still didn’t prevent his ‘gut feeling’ from not detecting the threat that he faced on one particularly innocent looking visit. Which goes to show that you never know what is round the corner, even if you think ‘it’ll never happen to me’ or ‘I’ve done this too long to let anything get to me’.
A risk assessment of the situation, a personal alarm or similar mobile application cannot prevent an assault from happening, especially in circumstances such as what Tony describes what it does provide is a vital lifeline in the event of an emergency. Imagine Tony’s means of escape had been cut off? What would’ve happened may not bear thinking about.
Tony’s article can be read in its entirety here but below are the more poignant extracts.
“When you work in the community, often your only protection from serious dangers is a gut feeling. Referral letters from GPs frequently fail to communicate the real risks in a situation – even when carefully read ahead of a home visit. Working in an area of high social deprivation means you have to be prepared for anything: a full risk assessment and personal alarm can sometimes be your only protection as a lone worker.
“This particular visit seemed pretty ordinary. A straightforward referral to assess a patient with a known drinking problem, similar to many others I had seen. The fact that it was in sheltered housing took the edge off some safety concerns too – the warden would be on site if something went wrong. Elderly person in a safe environment, I thought comfortably. How could I have got it so wrong?
“When I arrived it was just like any other morning. We are used to being let in by the warden if there is no answer from a flat. It could be that patients have their television on so loud that they can’t hear the buzzer. I knocked lightly on the door. No answer. I tried again, but still no answer. The door was ajar, so I called out to ask if anyone was there but there was still no answer. The room smelt like a bar from the previous night and the curtains were closed.
“I walked in slowly and then started to hear groaning. The sight of a dishevelled older man stirring from his slumber was not new to me but as he started to move, he moaned and asked “who are you?” I was about to reply when the simultaneous groaning of three other men sleeping on the floor stopped me in my tracks.
“After regaining my composure, I replied that I was a consultant from the community team and that his GP has asked me to see him.
“He may have been nursing a hangover but I’ve never seen an older person run that fast. As chased me down the corridor it was all I could do to sprint away. The warden did not have the benefit of a further discussion about her concerns.”