When Working Alone Leads to Disaster?

Sadly, there have been some disastrous and desperately tragic events over the last 15 years, as the result of people working on their own.

Ashleigh Ewing was a mental health worker.  In 2006, she was stabbed to death by a schizophrenic client at his house. Andrew Locovou was murdered in 2013 by a customer while he was single-manning a betting shop late at night. After these tragedies it was ruled that the organisations involved should have carried out far more thorough risk assessments and that, in these cases, lone working should never have been permitted.

Working Alone

But for many organisations lone working safely increases flexibility, productivity and reduces costs.

So how can employers know when it’s ok to allow lone working – and when it’s not?

There are certain environments that increase the risks for employees. For example, in situations where customers or the general public are likely to become distressed, hostile or take advantage of the lone worker.

Environments where gambling, money or alcohol are involved as well as sensitive social work situations, can be volatile. It is often the lone worker who faces the backlash from sudden mood changes in these scenarios and are left dealing with the customer or patient on their own.

Perhaps by looking back at some terrible tragedies, we might be able to learn what could be done differently to reduce the chances of this ever happening again.

Ashleigh Ewing 2006

Ashleigh Ewing was working for a mental health charity and was sent to the home of a paranoid schizophrenic to deliver a letter informing him that he was in debt.

Ronald Dixon had a known history of mental health issues. He became angry and stabbed Ashleigh 39 times with kitchen knives and a pair of scissors. This was only months after Dixon had attempted killing the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

Mental Health Matters had not risk assessed Dixon for three years. Had they done so, Dixon’s mental state would have been taken into account and Ashleigh would never have been sent to his house alone. Her tragic murder could have been avoided.

A report following the murder stated: ‘It is the view of the panel that if a robust risk assessment had been completed including a consideration of the lone working policy…such lone working would have been abandoned and joint visits implemented.”

Ladbrokes introduced single-manning in 2010 as a way to reduce costs and increase profits. This meant that employees were expected to man a betting shop on their own. With shops usually staying open until 10pm, this left their staff alone late at night with potentially irritated and fraught customers.

3 years after working alone was introduced, Andrew Locovou was brutally beaten to death with a hammer whilst manning the shop alone. Shafique Ahmad Aarij had lost a large sum of money on the machines and flew into a violent rage, before killing Locovou and stealing £296 from the shop till.

Outrageously, this was one of 10 serious attacks to Ladbrokes staff in this time period.

Another young worker was attacked in 2015. She was dragged into an unmonitored office, raped and left for dead by a customer after he also had lost a large amount of money.

Once again, both of these attacks could have been avoided had appropriate health and safety procedures been carried out by the company.

And allowing their staff to work alone in a potentially dangerous environment wasn’t the only failing which led to the death of the two employees;

  • Andrew pressed a panic alarm in the store during the attack. It went to the Head office but the police weren’t called.
  • The rape victim said afterwards that she’d not been given any training and didn’t know what to do if a customer had lost a lot of money.

As a result, Ladbrokes are still facing court procedures 4 years on, lives have been lost and several others changed forever.

So what can we learn from these terrible tragedies?

Obviously in the above examples lone working should not have been permitted and in some environments no matter how thorough the risk assessment is or how effective the safety measures put in place seem – the risk is still too great.

But many organisations find lone working safely reduces costs and increases flexibility and productivity.

So how do businesses make the judgement call about whether or not lone working in their situations and environment is safe?

  • The first and most important step to deciding whether your staff are safe to work alone, is carrying out a thorough risk assessment for every single employee in every single different environment and situation they may be faced with.
  • Employers must know their legislation. There are several laws that hold the employer responsible for protecting the safety of everyone on their staff.
  • The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974
  • The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999
  • The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007
  • Training should always be provided and kept updated for lone workers to enable them to handle any risks they might face. When working with customers alone, training should be given on recognising signs of danger and de-escalation techniques.
  • Consistent and accurate monitoring is paramount in managing the safety of lone workers. Organisations should put systems and technology in place so that employees can quickly communicate with their employer and raise an alarm if needed.