How to buy lone-worker devices
Written by: Simon Creasey | Published:

Lone-worker devices and systems can play a key role when it comes to keeping employees safe out of hours. But when it comes to their procurement, there is a great deal to consider, as Simon Creasey discovers

Few communication sectors have as little margin for error than lone working. Users can’t afford for their signal to drop out, they can’t afford to use a system that triggers false alarms and they can’t afford to use devices that break when dropped. The user demands are tough and the number of users of lone-worker devices and solutions has grown rapidly over the past decade or so thanks to a combination of different factors.

But with cheap devices flooding the market, it’s easy for first-time buyers to get it wrong, with disastrous results. So how can procurement heads ensure they choose a lone-worker solution that is fit for purpose, and what are the common pitfalls they need to avoid?

Over the past 30 years or so, lone-worker devices have evolved significantly. Initially people used pagers for lone-worker alerts, which had significant shortcomings, says Paul Smith, managing director at ANT Telecommunications.

“Back then it was a case of ‘somebody has raised an alarm, we know who it was by the number’, and that was about it. It was only later on when we moved to DECT (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications) that you could start coming up with a location for that person, and that was down to the base station location, which has a 100-metre radius outdoors,” explains Smith. “Nowadays you’ve got specific beacons where you can find the location of someone down to a couple of metres. And you’ve also got GPS outdoors, which again is accurate to within a few metres.”

It’s not just satellite technology that has improved significantly over the past couple of decades. So too have lone-worker devices and applications. “Today you can have lone-worker apps on your smartphone. It can be on your brand new Galaxy S8,” says Smith.

Then there is the whole host of bespoke hi-tech lone-worker devices such as pendants, key fobs, ID badge holders, ruggedised smartphones and satellite phones. With so much choice it is important companies select the right solution for the environment they intend to use it in. The good news is there are plenty of resources available to help people make the right decision. A good starting point for first-time buyers is Suzy Lamplugh Trust’s ‘lone worker devices directory’. The charity also provides advice on what lone-worker devices are available and how to implement a lone-worker policy. Saskia Garner, policy officer at the trust, says that due to the huge number of different devices available, selecting the right one can be confusing.

“People’s jobs vary wildly and while some devices are best for those working alone in an office, others are more suited to those who have a manual labour job,” says Garner. “When choosing a device, consider why you want to invest in one, who would use it, whether it is practical and how it improves safety.”

This latter point is important under the Corporate Manslaughter and Homicide Act, which came into force in 2007 to ensure companies put in place measures to diminish or negate the risk of employees being injured or worse in the workplace. As a result, organisations need to carry out a risk assessment for each employee’s role, grading them into high, medium or low risk, and establish whether the risks are due to environment, people or tasks, suggests Will Murray, marketing director at Skyguard.

“Once this has been established, the organisation will be in a good position to discuss with prospective providers which solution best meets their needs to eliminate or reduce those risks,” says Murray.

There are four main areas that this discussion with suppliers should focus on, according to Gary King, SPOT regional sales manager (EMEA) at Globalstar.

“One is coverage, so where is it going to be used?” says King. “Is the location indoors or outdoors and do you have coverage in that area? The perception very much in the market is that GSM coverage is everywhere, but of course that’s not the case. The second area is the environment it’s being used in and the third area is battery life. So how many hours a day is it going to be used? The issue with GSM devices is they have very poor battery life in general. The final area is what monitoring information do organisations need? Do they need to know the exact location of everyone at the same time, and what happens in the case of an emergency – how is that going to be handled?”

Smith says it can take a while to uncover a potential purchaser’s exact requirement; that is why he advises companies do their homework before approaching suppliers to ensure they get the right device and solution for their individual needs.

“Most of the time the person requesting this is health and safety [departments], so they might say ‘I’ve got 10 lone workers, I need 10 lone-worker devices’, but there is much more to it than that,” says Smith. “We try to assess the current communication device they use and whether or not they can enhance it in some way to provide a solution for lone working. A lot of companies provide lone-worker solutions and they have a GSM tag, so they’re going to say ‘the best solution for you is a GSM tag’, but what we would ask is ‘what kind of communications system do you currently have? Do you have radio? That’s an option. Do you have voice over Wi-Fi? That’s another one. Do you have good GSM coverage on your site because there is no point putting a GSM solution in if you’ve got blackspots?’”

In addition to the individual technical requirements organisations might have, form factor also needs to be considered when sourcing lone-worker devices. For instance, Smith says nurses visiting patients might prefer to use a discreet ID card holder, whereas workers on a wind farm in the Scottish Highlands will need a ruggedised device that can withstand the elements. While form and functionality decisions depend on specific user requirements, some things should be considered an absolute necessity, such as BS8484 accreditation, says Murray.

“When organisations are looking to implement a robust and effective lone-worker system, they should ensure the supplier, alarm receiving centre (ARC) and device/app are all fully certified to the latest British Standard for lone-worker device monitoring – BS8484:2016,” adds Murray. “The client organisation should ask to see copies of the auditing body’s certificates as evidence and any reputable supplier will be happy to provide these.”

ARC is an area that Craig Swallow, managing director at SoloProtect, believes is often overlooked. “It’s not just about a device, it’s about the ARC at the receiving end and its capabilities. Clients should ask for demonstrable evidence of speed of incident handling – it’s a requirement now of BS8484. Also ask for evidence of ARC uptime and how they have managed redundancy in the event of an outage,” says Swallow.

Another question that purchasers need to ask of potential lone-worker device and solution providers is what sort of service level do they offer? “You can get anything from a self-service model, where you will get the kit in a box with a manual and a log-on to the portal, all the way through to a fully managed service,” says Chris Allcard, lone-worker services director at Reliance High-Tech. “We have staff out with customers day in, day out making sure that people know how to use the system and get the maximum out of it. It all depends on what the client wants. Some people are fine with the cheapest basic solution, but some need more help.”

Cost is an issue for most companies and as a result there is a temptation to opt for more affordable models, but some UK suppliers of lone-worker kit are worried about these ‘cheap and cheerful’ devices and solutions flooding into the market from overseas. “You wouldn’t want to buy something that someone’s life depends on from eBay from China,” says Smith. “Anybody can write an app for lone workers, but it might not have been fully tested or approved in any way, shape or form.”

One sure-fire way of making sure that a device or solution works and is fit for purpose is to test drive it, according to Murray. “Once the appropriate solution for each employee role has been discussed, I would strongly recommend that a field trial is conducted for each role/device combination across various departments, which will not only prove the product is the ‘right fit’ for the user, but will encourage ‘buy in’ from each department,” says Murray. “It’s important that employees understand why the solution is being implemented and are fully comfortable in using the product during an emergency.”

Users also need to make sure that they have put in place protocols for the ongoing use of their lone-worker devices and solutions. “One of the classic mistakes we see is people thinking that buying a bit of technology solves all of their problems, but they haven’t considered the wider issues. They don’t have robust policies and procedures in place, and once the kit is installed they aren’t policing its use at their end,” says Allcard.

It is a view shared by Swallow, who says companies need to focus on usage when they have put their lone-worker system in place. “Some lone workers will resist using a system provided, either because they don’t think they have risk or they think they can handle the risk. Any supplier worth its salt will work with the client in building a plan for how to encourage a high level of adoption across the user base,” says Swallow. At the end of the day, when it comes to ensuring the safety of lone workers, this is the ultimate goal.

Case study
In recent years the number of industry sectors using lone-worker devices and solutions has grown significantly. A new but rapidly growing user base is the renewable energy industry, which often sees people working on their own in remote locations. One of the latest companies to make a major investment in lone-worker technology from this sector is General Electric’s wind energy division, which has rolled out Globalstar’s SPOT Gen3 safety device for workers as they install and maintain onshore wind power facilities. General Electric has initially taken 70 devices for crews working in locations such as Pakistan and Egypt. Should an emergency occur, SPOT sends the user’s GPS co-ordinates to first-responders via the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center.

“Our staff sometimes work in very challenging circumstances; wherever they are, we need to know they are safe and are connected,” says Carlos Chivite Trincado, onshore wind energy environment health and safety leader at General Electric Wind Energy. “We must be confident in our workers’ security before we undertake any new wind energy development. SPOT is an important part of GE’s abiding commitment to providing the best possible safety and working conditions for our valuable crews.”

The main dos and don’ts of buying lone-worker devices

  • Do your homework before speaking to a supplier about purchasing a lone-worker device or solution. The more background research you do, the better your chances of selecting a system that is fit for purpose.
  • Domake sure any lone-worker device you look at has long battery life. As a bare minimum, the device’s battery needs to outlast an employee’s working day, including their commuting time.
  • Do make sure that the supplier, alarm receiving centre and device/app are all fully certified to BS:8484:2016.
  • Don’t assume that one device or solution will be suitable for your entire workforce. The good news is there are a wide range of options out there to suit all business environments, ranging from key fobs to ruggedised smartphones.
  • Don’t just take the plunge and buy the first lone-worker device or solution that meets your requirements and your budget. Field-test the product so that any issues are highlighted in advance of a wider roll-out. If you have shortlisted two products, run a side-by-side comparison to establish the best option.
  • Don’t forget to monitor the use of lone-worker devices once they have been deployed.

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