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PPE & tech: Keeping remote workers safe

26 July 2021

Since the pandemic began, industrial workplaces with already high health and safety demands have experienced a new set of pressures, says Naz Dossa

THE COVID-19 pandemic has seen many workforces depleted and resulted in altered working conditions affecting those who remain, including an increased trend towards lone and remote working.

Research by worker protection specialists Peoplesafe, among more than 120 health and safety specialists, confirms that changes to working practices made necessary by COVID-19 have placed a heavier H&S burden on employers. More than three quarters of the firms they spoke to reported an increase in safety requirements over the last 12 months. As one explanation for this, a quarter reported an increase in the number of lone workers they had on site or in the field, in addition to those working remotely in line with the government’s stay at home guidelines.

The company's whitepaper, 'PPE and Tech: The Role of Technology in Supporting Lone Workers' focuses on this increasing trend towards lone and remote working, exploring the measures businesses are taking to reduce risks for this particularly vulnerable set of workers. It also examines how the definition of a lone worker has changed and how updated guidelines from the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) place more explicit responsibilities on employers for the protection of any employee working out of sight or earshot of their colleagues and supervisors.

New tech tools

Over the past 18 months, the need for workers to be supplied with appropriate Covid-related personal protective equipment (PPE) has received a lot of press attention. Behind the scenes, many businesses have recognised the need to take this a step further, by exploring how wearable or portable technology can help them put more effective health and safety frameworks in place for their workers.

According to Peoplesafe’s figures, almost three quarters (71%) of firms plan to invest in lone worker technology within the next 1-3 years. And with the growing trend towards technology-enabled H&S practices putting pressure on budgets, 78% would like to recategorise lone worker protection as PPE. This move would help them secure funding and boost adoption, potentially leading to an evolution of PPE to PPET: Personal Protective Equipment and Technology, and to improved safety standards for every member of the workforce.

In an industrial setting, employers have to assess, monitor and limit more environmental and task-based risks than most other settings. If work is undertaken by a solitary employee, those risks become instantly amplified, simply because there are no colleagues around to help assess risks, prevent incidents or call for help in the event of an accident. HSE guidance places a specific duty on employers to protect lone workers from both physical and mental harm, guarding against the raised stress levels that can come with working alone as well as the increased risk of serious injury. It can become an onerous task, even where workforces are smaller, so one of the ways the HSE recommends employers maintain consistent safety standards is with an ‘embedded monitoring system’.

The technology required will differ according to the workplace and its specific hazards

So what might this ‘embedded monitoring system' look like? The technology required will differ according to the workplace and its specific hazards; for some there will be a need for sophisticated systems with GPS tracking and fall detection capabilities, for others a simple app that can be loaded onto a mobile device will suffice. One example is the new Peoplesafe app, which instantly turns smartphones into personal safety devices: users simply hold down the SOS Alarm button for one second if they feel unsafe. This connects them directly to the ARC within six seconds and gives the alarm controller automatic access to their GPS location in case assistance from emergency services is needed.

Whatever technology businesses choose, the most important thing will be to ensure that it’s widely adopted and well understood. Embedding PPET into a company’s wider systems and processes through ongoing training and employee consultation is the best way to evolve company culture and make health and safety everyone’s first priority.

Naz Dossa is CEO, Peoplesafe