Working alone, known as lone working, applies to many different employees and self-employed people in the UK.
There are more than 8 million lone workers in the UK with the numbers growing steadily as the country moves to a more service-based economy. Because of this, employers and employers need to be aware of the risks, responsibilities, and employee rights when lone working.
Whether it is an electrical maintenance worker late at night on a dark road attempting to fix a street lamp, a contractor on a building site, or a self-employed person working from home, there are risks to workers when they are unsupervised.
This article is a guide for employees and employers to understand the UK law on lone working and how employers should protect employees.
The definition of lone working
When is someone classed as a lone worker
Whether lone working is legal
Are there any risks?
What the law says about lone-working
If employees can refuse to work alone.
What is lone working?
Lone working can be carried out from home, in remote areas, or even in the same building as the lone worker’s colleagues. The term doesn’t mean that you are always working alone, it refers to the fact that you are working away from the direct supervision of your manager.
Under employment law, the term equally refers to people working remotely thanks to the development of internet speeds and video conferencing technology and skilled workers ‘out in the field’.
Who is classed as a lone worker?
Lone workers are anyone who works alone. They include anyone who works alone from contractors to self-employed and employed workers.
A good way to think about it and work out whether you’re a lone worker is a lone worker is anyone who can’t be heard and seen by their colleagues. It doesn’t matter if this is for all or part of their working day.
Lone workers include:
People who work in an establishment where only one person works at times – e.g. a petrol station worker, at a kiosk such as a newspaper kiosk, a workshop, shops, homeworkers.
People who work separately from their colleagues in the same building – factories, warehouses, R&D facilities.
People who work away from their office or base – construction workers, maintenance and cleaning, electrical repairs, plumbers, painters and decorators, vehicle recovery drivers, delivery drivers, cab and ride-hailing drivers.
Landscapers, gardeners, agricultural workers and forestry workers
People in the service industry – social workers, carers, sales reps, postal workers, estate agents, architects, surveyors, sales reps.
Is lone working legal?
Yes, lone working is legal, however, employers have to ensure they have managed any health and safety risks before any employee works alone. This includes anyone contracted to work for an employer, such as self-employed people.
The reason employers must protect lone workers from risks is because they have to protect employees and some workers from harm under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
If your employer fails to manage the risk of you working alone you may be able to claim compensation for any personal injuries you suffer.
What are the potential risks of lone working?
The HSE stresses that there are always greater risks for lone workers, as they lack the direct supervision of a manager or colleague who can help them if things go wrong.
According to a 2021 report by StaySafe, 68% of companies have experienced an incident involving a lone worker in the 3 years since the report was published. Out of these 1/5 of the incidents were described as severe or very severe. What's more, nearly a 1/4 of lone workers reported feeling unsafe.
Anyone out in the field travelling to appointments with clients or to another site where they will work alone is regularly exposed to road risks, for example.
The most common risks of lone working include:
Stress and other health issues
What is the law on lone working?
There are no laws prohibiting lone working. The Safety, Health, and Welfare at Work Act 2005 is a relevant piece of legislation that governs the rules of lone working.
It requires employers to undertake a risk assessment into the hazards of the employee’s job role and whether lone working is appropriate.
The employer must assess whether the employee is at a significantly higher risk when working alone.
To protect themselves employees must also be aware of the legislation and risks attached to lone working in their particular industry and specialism.
How must employers manage the risk to lone workers?
Another crucial piece of legislation is the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.
This outlines that employers are legally obligated to:
Stay in touch and respond to incidents
Enquire about risk and control measures of another business when an employee is working at another business
Homeworkers should be treated the same as other lone workers. This means employers have the same health and safety responsibilities to their employees and they are liable for any accident or injury that results from homeworking.
Employers must provide supervision, education, and training to support homeworkers. They must also put risk mitigations in place to protect workers.
What are the legal responsibilities of a lone worker?
The HSE declares that lone workers must take care of their health and safety and that they must ensure others are not harmed by their 'actions or your work’
They should also cooperate with their employer concerning training and supervision requirements. This ensures they can do their job safely and their employer can intervene to protect their health and safety if they are taking risks or not mitigating risks effectively.
You should raise concerns if you are worried about the risks to any worker including yourself, lone worker, or otherwise.
You can talk to:
Your employer’s health and safety rep.
When is lone working not OK?
Lone working is not always appropriate. In certain situations, or types of work lone working is against the health and safety law.
Some high-risk work always requires at least one other person, including:
In confined spaces such as ventilation shafts and crawl spaces, a second worker is required in case of emergency rescue
When working near live exposed electricity conductors
When work involves diving
Vehicles carrying explosives
Working with fumigation.
Can I refuse to work alone?
If you're uncomfortable about lone working, you should speak to your line manager or supervisor, especially if you are worried because:
You don’t feel like you have received the necessary training
You think there is a high level of risk, or risk hasn’t been properly mitigated
You have a health condition that makes the work unsafe.
It’s probably not a good idea to simply refuse to work alone. This could sour your relationship with your employer. Instead, ensure you have clarified exactly what makes the task unsafe for you or the medical condition you have if you haven’t disclosed it previously.
That being said, you shouldn't worry about recriminations in refusing lone working, under the Employment Rights Act 1996 employees cannot be punished for ‘reasonable actions taken on health and safety grounds’.
Employees have the right to interrogate health and safety provisions and bring up any concerns about the risks involved in a task so that their employer can take actions to protect them against threats of ‘serious and imminent danger’.
Lone working laws demystified
While there’s nothing that makes lone working unsafe by nature, depending on the circumstances of the work you do, risks may be involved.
Your employer has a legal duty to keep you safe and when they have failed to do so you may be able to make a claim against them.
Whether you’re an employee or an employer, our employment solicitors can help you understand your rights and responsibilities around lone working and lone workers. Get a free case evaluation to find out more.