Protecting lone workers in industrial and remote environments
Written by: Vaughan O’Grady | Published:
Northumbrian Water Group opted to use a range of different methods to protect its lone workers, from dedicated devices to apps

You are not alone even when you’re working in some of Britain’s remotest areas. That’s because communications devices developed to help protect employees reach almost everywhere, as Vaughan O’Grady discovers

The type of telecommunications systems and devices a company may use for lone worker safety depend on how it defines ‘lone worker’. Public-facing employees, for example, may need protection from hostile customers. But lone workers in remote areas or industrial sites will experience different threats and use different devices. For these workers André Malm, senior analyst with M2M/IoT market research firm Berg Insight and author of the report People Monitoring and Safety Solutions, says the threat is not usually from an irate public. “Your main threat is actually from the environment,” he states.

This could mean, for example, a worker falling off a ladder in a vast treatment plant, someone being involved in a car accident on a lonely road, or even forest wildfires, which, says Gavan Murphy, director of marketing EMEA at Globalstar, “in certain conditions can occur suddenly and spread rapidly, even in the UK”. And he should know. The Globalstar SPOT Gen 3 location-based messaging and emergency notification technology system, which uses satellite communication, has been used by the Forestry Commission in England and Scotland to help protect staff.

Diane Somerville, health, safety, environment and quality manager with Northumbrian Water Group (NWG), adds a user’s point of view. Lone Worker Solutions deployed its LoneWorker Manager platform to protect and support more than 1,500 lone and remote NWG staff – but it has to work seamlessly across a number of employee types and communications technologies.

“Our lone workers fall into three different categories,” Somerville explains. “You’ve got people who are out doing a lot of driving, working rural areas where mobile coverage is really quite difficult. That’s [where we use] the SPOT 3 device because it does track and trace. For the guys who work in more urban areas where they are dealing with the public we’ve got ProtectMe – a fob device that has man- down capability and a panic alarm. The third category is staff who will periodically do lone work. They’re typically office-based and we’ve got an app for them.”

Will Murray, marketing director with Skyguard, which offers a number of personal safety devices linked to its UK-based 24/7 incident management centre, points out: “There is a wide range of devices and apps available on the marketplace today: pendants, key fobs, ID badge holders, ruggedised smartphones, satellite phones, IP and ATEX- rated [for use in hazardous or explosive atmospheres] devices. Each will meet a particular need, suited to the employee’s environment, task, and specific risk factors.”

Given this diversity what should you consider when procuring a lone worker safety system? Firstly, “the organisation should always conduct a risk assessment of each employee’s role and ascertain which lone worker solution best eliminates or reduces those risks,” says Murray. “There are numerous factors to consider. For example, if the geographic area the individual operates in suffers from poor mobile phone signal coverage then their device should be fitted with a roaming SIM card, or if there is no signal coverage they should opt for a satellite-based product.

“Another issue could be whether the employee is working outdoors, in which case they may need a waterproof or ruggedised device. Each worker has a unique set of circumstances, which the employer should consider and discuss with suppliers,” he adds.

One setting could involve staff working without easily contactable support in a large building, an industrial site or a mine. What happens if they get into difficulty?

Here a dedicated communications system might be necessary. Malm says: “When we look into advanced features like automatic location of the lone worker, GPS doesn’t work indoors so you should have other systems in place – RF beacons for instance.” An example covered recently by Land Mobile is Chatterbox’s CALM+ (Chatterbox Alarm Location Monitoring) system, used by Thames Water’s Walton Advanced Water Treatment Works, which offers a robust DMR-based two-way radio supporting voice, text and GPS (with help from Bluetooth beacons in internal areas where GPS may not be effective).

However, as in regular wireless communications, cellular connectivity dominates worker protection systems. A smartphone with appropriate apps could be enough in some circumstances. Murray explains: “A smartphone app will be more suited to a low-risk employee and a dedicated device for higher-risk roles, because a smartphone has to run a range of functions and will not perform as effectively as a device that has been specifically designed for lone worker protection.”

“If the threat they’re facing is on rare occasions – the few times you’re actually without supervision – it might be more realistic to use a smartphone app because it’s more likely that you would remember to carry your phone rather than on a very few occasions remember to bring a dedicated device,” adds Malm.

Apps and devices often support ‘man down’ technology; usually an accelerometer that triggers an alarm if it senses the worker has fallen and hasn’t moved for a time. “The algorithms have to be tuned so it doesn’t trigger false alarms,” Malm explains, “but other than that it’s a fairly basic technology that’s also used in consumer smartphones and telecare systems for elderly people.”

An example is a lone worker app developed by Morrison Utility Services for its staff. Freefall detection or detection of no movement for a long period are part of the system, as well as a panic button and (to avoid false alarms) an alert text that permits alarm cancellation.

For really remote working, however, a check-in system that also allows you to report back to a control centre, or a track and trace product may be useful. But what happens when you’re too remote to receive a cellular or PMR signal? Murphy points out that Globalstar’s low earth orbit satellite constellation enables SPOT users to stay connected when other networks aren’t available.

“If the user finds themselves in trouble, with a single press of SPOT’s SOS button their location can be instantly transmitted to the worldwide GEOS emergency response centre or to regional emergency services, regardless of network coverage. Industrial and commercial SPOT users also have the option of connecting directly with their own or third party emergency response centres.”

But when you do have coverage why not just use an app most of the time? “If you’re looking at industrial or remote use cases then a dedicated device is better: they’re easier to use with gloves on and more robust,” says Malm. “There isn’t any likelihood users would forget to turn on the lone worker function at the start of a shift. There are so many issues that can go wrong with consumer-grade devices and especially apps. A dedicated device is usually more fully developed in terms of its ability to have a strong signal reception.” And in some cases – petrochemical refineries, say – you need protected equipment so a conventional smartphone would be out of the question.

Dedicated devices are also built for easy use: small, portable and “they sometimes don’t even have a display – just a few buttons: one large alarm button and a few other buttons, a large battery and a durable case,” adds Malm.

Long battery life is also critical. Murphy says: “The SPOT device can be configured to send GPS data on the user’s location as frequently as every two-and-a-half minutes. Depending on the user’s tracking requirements, and the type of battery selected, SPOT can stay charged for up to 156 days.”

“As a bare minimum the battery should last for the duration of the lone worker’s shift, and then they can recharge it when they finish work,” explains Murray. “However, this puts more onus on the user to remember to charge it every day. Skyguard’s devices typically have a battery life of 50-plus hours. We are also able to alter the configuration settings and functionality on the device, so if necessary we can squeeze 200 usage hours from it. We can also provide clients whose staff drive during their job with in-car chargers.”

A further advantage is being able to carry the device easily. “SPOT can be clipped to clothing, either ordinary apparel or protective work wear, or a backpack,” says Murphy, adding: “A SPOT device can function perfectly well through fabric, glass and plastic.”

Similarly, Skyguard’s MySOS alarm can be worn as a pendant on a lanyard, fixed to a belt using its holster, attached to a bunch of keys using the keyring, worn as an ID badge with the ID badge holder accessory, or simply carried in a pocket or handbag. MySOS is small and incorporates GPS, GPRS and man- down technologies, mobile phone position request (which lets you see where the device is at any moment), and an SOS alarm function.

Another consideration is standards- compliance – a well-developed area in the UK. Murray explains: “Any organisation looking to implement a credible and effective lone worker system should ensure the supplier, ARC [alarm receiving centre] and device are certified to the British standard for lone worker device monitoring: BS 8484. This ensures all the components of the service meet the highest industry standards and are fit for purpose. Furthermore, if the supplier is certified to BS 8484 then they can apply for a URN [Unique Reference Number] with each UK police force. This enables them to summon the highest level of police response to an end user in an emergency, saving vital minutes.”

“If something happens and you don’t have a service that’s BS 8484-accredited it could be more difficult to convince the court that you have done the utmost to ensure the safety of workers,” suggests Malm. “So although it’s not mandatory it’s really becoming best practice to have solutions that follow this standard.”

While the lone working market tends to focus on public- and customer-facing staff, those working in industrial environments also need the added protection lone worker devices provide; image credit: iStock/MagMos

As for what a lone worker protection system could be connected to, it’s up to the client. In an industrial setting, for instance, you might just get in touch with a supervisor elsewhere on the site. However, Murray says: “We would always advise connecting to a dedicated 24/7 ARC operated by a lone worker supplier. This is because it will have met exacting standards in terms of quality procedures, infrastructure and technology, operator training and skills, and business continuity plans.”

Finally, you need to ensure that the solution is not only suited to your sector and staff but also that it can be adapted. “Any lone worker system should be able to take each person’s unique circumstances into account to deliver the right help to them when they need it,” states Murray. “Additionally, the system should be adaptable so that when an individual’s circumstances change (for example, developing a medical condition) it can easily be updated. Our system allows the client administrator to edit any aspect of a profile online 24/7 within a couple of minutes, via our secure portal.”

Murphy adds: “We have a number of deployments in which we have integrated some customised features such as tailored user interfaces and device energy consumption management. Configurable elements also include frequency of tracking and how an incoming call or SOS alert is handled. Globalstar is constantly carrying out product development and optimisation, so each generation of SPOT includes improvements that our customers have asked for.”

So what does this mean in practice? Northumbrian Water chose Lone Worker Solutions’ hybrid satellite and smartphone offering, but Somerville says picking a system “probably took about two years. We interviewed 10 different companies as our starting point but quickly whittled that down. We went for the one that was most suitable for our needs.

“The project team was made up of people from around the business: the guys who were going to be using the devices,” she continues. “We trialled two different suppliers’ sets of devices and then got feedback from the people using them.” The users do not exclusively stick to one device; depending on their need a worker may double up on, say, a fob device and a SPOT device or an app and SPOT.In addition, Northumbrian Water found ‘superusers’ within the business and Lone Worker Solutions trained them to train others. Guidance documents were also supplied and there’s refresher training. “We’re constantly looking at system reports, and identify who hasn’t been using the device. If they haven’t then we want to know why. Are they still training? Do they need to do refresher training? Maybe they haven’t been lone working or they haven’t

felt the need to use it,” Somerville concludes. If you decide to purchase lone worker protection you won’t be unusual. As Murray says: “The market is growing year on year; with an estimated six to eight million lone workers in the UK alone, and many more employees who work on their own at some point during the day or less frequently such as once a week.” Malm warns: “There’s a large grey area where a lot of companies buy quite cheap appliances from Chinese suppliers, so it’s bit difficult to get a good estimate of the whole market... It would probably be about €10 million for the devices themselves. The total lone worker market in the UK was probably around €50 million in 2015.”“Increasingly robust health and safety legislation and best practice guidelines have been an important factor in driving adoption, along with increased media coverage of deaths and accidents at work,” Murray points out.

“Meanwhile solution suppliers have harnessed advances in technology and implemented these in their devices, apps and associated infrastructure, for a lower cost to clients. Finally, key stakeholders and industry players have been keen to increase awareness and educate the market – decision makers, managers and end users alike. All of these factors, along with an ever more dangerous world, have helped proliferate the market, which is set to experience year-on-year growth for at least another decade.”

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