New legislation on employee health and safety and a large cash injection from the government have made protecting lone workers a hot topic in the health service. Michael Carrington explains

According to the British Crime Survey, in 2005 there were 339,000 threats of violence and 317,000 physical assaults on British workers. For employers, who are responsible for employee health and safety, this is worrying. Establishing a safe working environment is high on the agenda.

In the health service, lone workers are increasing. These workers are often away from base and exposed to high levels of risk daily. While the need for this type of worker is acknowledged in the health sector, it makes employee safety much harder to manage.

Resource pressures combined with a trend for flexible working has led to healthcare professionals increasingly finding themselves out of the office and conducting more home visits. In the past, most health workers would have worked in nursing homes, hospitals or doctors' surgeries, where the environment is familiar.

Today's workplace for health sector personnel is often the home of a service user. Each home is an unknown environment where they are often expected to deal with difficult situations with none of the safety measures they would benefit from in a more conventional workplace.

Danger zone

The number of assaults on public service staff is increasing and obviously impacts on workers' ability to do their job. In Scotland alone, attacks on health and local government workers have increased by 2,000 this year, bringing the number of attacks for 2007 to 25,157.

Such assaults can also damage morale. A report published by the Royal College of Nursing in July revealed that one-third of nurses have been assaulted or harassed while working alone in the community during the past two years. Nurses voiced concerns that managers do not keep a track of their whereabouts, despite their work becoming more dangerous.

Thankfully, some action has been taken to combat this problem. At this year's Labour Party conference, health secretary Alan Johnson revealed plans for new measures to protect NHS staff working alone and in vulnerable situations as part of a£97m boost to the NHS security budget. This included£29m that has been earmarked to equip lone workers in the NHS with personal safety devices.

The cash injection will help tackle this problem. However, it is also important that employers understand the laws governing work activities. It is up to managers to weigh the risks and assess whether the requirements of the company can be safely met by people working alone.

Law change

The new Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act, due to come into force in April 2008, will put pressure on public sector and private organisations to introduce and review safety measures for employees. The act will subject organisations to unlimited fines if gross failures in health and safety lead to deaths.

Organisations can reduce risks by engaging with employees and their safety representatives, who are valuable sources of information and advice. They can help ensure relevant hazards are identified and appropriate controls such as protective equipment and training are put in place.

The full impact of this legislation is still under debate, but one thing is certain: the health service will have to take the personal safety of its employees very seriously from now on. If they do not address these issues, organisations could risk accusations of ethical neglect and malpractice, leaving them open to prosecution under the new legislation.

In a health sector where resources are already stretched, costly prosecutions that take resources away from frontline services are not in anybody's interests. Prevention is, after all, better than cure.