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April 28, 2023

Lone Worker Safety Questions Answered

Our Director of training, Gerard O’Dea recently gave an audio interview for a group of managers from a national-level group of enforcement officers who work alone in the community.

Table of contents

How should companies consider Lone Worker Safety?

Personal safety problems can be approached early in the cycle of violence – in the phases or the development of a violent incident. Organisations really want to be winning those “fights” if you like, much earlier in the sequence and not later on. The focus should be on staff “not being there” when things go wrong. The Health and Safety at Work Management Regs ’99 suggest that businesses need to be carrying out risk assessments. Each team, I would suggest whether part of an enforcement team or you’re part of an social work team in itself, should have a risk assessment that covers the various activities around meeting people in public, meeting people in their own homes. If there is any lone worker activity involved in what your team does, there should really be a formal documented risk assessment around that because in the event of any incident, that would be one of the first things that will be investigated and looked at.

Secondly then, I would really recommend to everybody that you take a look at Regulation 8 of the Management Regulations, because what you have there is very specific to procedures for serious and imminent danger. It speaks to things like if staff are going to be put in a situation of danger, that they should be given the information that would help them to deal with it. That they should be allowed to leave that place of work immediately on being put in that position. And then a really key part of Regulation 8 part C is it says that if a person has been exposed to a serious imminent danger, they should not be mandated to go back to that same workplace again.

If we are having recurring interactions with somebody and they do have a history of being verbally aggressive, violent, abusive, threatening to one of our staff, as managers we need to be trying to prevent those incidents from happening again by not sending that person back to deal with that same individual. So there are really good, strong directives in both the management of health and safety regs and the Health and Safety Work Act that would help you as a team and guide your conversations about keeping people safe.

Is information sharing important for lone worker safety?

Very simply the more information we have about an interaction we’re about to have or an encounter we’re about to enter into, the more safe we will be.

When I hear about national-level databases and the opportunities that might create in the future for linking into other systems, I respond very positively to that because really the more that we can understand before we’re sending people out to have these interactions, the better.

And as we know, a history of violence or threatening behaviour or abuse is one of the most powerful things we can have which helps us to predict violence. So information sharing is hugely important, whether that’s on a formal basis in putting information into a database, et cetera. Or whether it’s on a more informal basis where we’re just having team meetings, we’re checking in with people, we’re trying to find information, even simply making a phone call to another department. Making a phone call to other departments (within of course the data protection provisions), finding out as much information as we can is hugely beneficial in terms of keeping each other safe.

Can Violence Warning Markers improve Lone Worker Safety?

Violence warning markers are a feature of that same block of safety provisions. There is guidance from the information commissioner’s office about the sharing of information around violent warning markers. You may have a database at your local authority which specifically deals with this, or haver part of a client database or service user database that you have, which might specifically note that certain addresses or certain people who live at certain addresses, are actually known they have a history of being violent or abusive with council workers, et cetera.

So the ICO have said, look where there is a good reason for providing information to another organization, for example to alert them to a potential risk to their staff, then sharing that data would be justified. Essentially, if it’s in the public interest to let a team know that people at a certain address have a history of being violent to the staff, absolutely it should be shared.

The question for a lot of teams is, are you asking those questions? Are you lifting the phone? Have you got those relationships in place where you go to another team and ask for information about somebody? Are there sufficient relationships in place where they would do that for you? Sometimes it’s done informally, of course you have to be careful with data confidentiality.

What steps can teams take to keep their lone workers safe?

Of course when we’re out on a visit there are certain questions: as a team are we fully aware of where everybody else is right now and what they’re doing and if they’re safe?

When we look at some of the cases where lone workers in particular have run into trouble, there’s almost always a very clear thread – a theme that runs through these stories – that there wasn’t a great system of supervision in place.

People weren’t aware of where the team member was when they were due back. And we’ve got famous stories going way back in the lone worker personal safety community, which highlight these issues time and time again.

If you’re having a meeting with somebody…and the service user or contact says, “look, I don’t like what you’re saying about me or my business, and I’ll lock the front door and you’re staying with me until we get this sorted out”.

So you just got barricaded in with somebody who’s very upset, quite unpredictable…that’s when all of this comes into play. What processes does your team have to find out you’re missing or you’re not back from your visit on time – to contact you, to talk to somebody close to you and so on. The supervision element can become a really key part of your team’s personal safety practices to know where everybody is.

Have you got a lone worker safety device or some other system in place whereby you can quickly notify others that you might be in a spot of bother?

Are lone worker safety devices effective?

I’m generally positively disposed towards the various devices that are on the market. Some to my mind are better than others in that they are more ergonomic in a conflict situation. For example, there are what’s called an Identicom device. It really just looks like an ID card holder, but as you can see it’s about the thickness of a Samsung or an iPhone, a smartphone. And it’s got mobile phone technology in it.

The reason we like that one in particular, it’s got a big thumb size button on the back of the device that, even when your heart rate goes up because you’re under threat, your peripheral feeling in your limbs starts to diminish in proportion to the amount of danger you feel you’re in.

When that survival system kicks in, what you want is a really big button to push!

Some of the devices are better designed than others, with this in mind. We’ve seen devices that attach to your mobile phone by Bluetooth, with for example the button to activate the red alert to tell your team that you’re in trouble placed on a watch strap and the button is therefore on your wrist. It’s really easy to access and you can touch the button and send the red alerts to the call center and all sorts of great things can happen at that point. So at least then somebody knows that you are in trouble. And there are various elements of this software that let people know where you are. There’s GPS tracking involved and so on.

How should we implement lone worker safety devices?

It can be really important that you have a means of sending an alert somehow. If your team does decide to get the technology and procures something like that, it becomes important that we look after the human factors of that situation, because many of the teams that I’ve met who have these devices in play don’t!

Some staff keep them in their cars, some people never charge them up, some people have never tested the device, so they don’t know what actually happens when they push the button. Some people keep the device at the bottom of their handbag or in their jacket pocket, which is hung up on a hook. These kinds of things impact the staff trust in the system and its ultimate utility in keeping the team safe. The systems tend to work really well, it’s the human factors or the human beings involved that tend to complicate them!

But they’re really useful. It’s just that if you take a system like this on board, if you start to use them on your team, you need to be quite diligent in making sure everybody understands why you’re using them, the importance of using them and that they’re using them correctly.

Can a lone worker use their smartphone to send safety alerts?

You’re probably carrying a smartphone in your pocket just now, or in your jacket, or your handbag, or whatever you have. Most smartphones these days come with an SOS function. I know for sure if I pick up my iPhone right now, if I press the power button five times in a row it will get ready to send an emergency alert or SOS message. Mine will actually count down from five, four, three, two, one and it’ll send a 999 call directly from my phone at that point and open up the speaker on my phone as well. It’s designed for medical emergencies in the main. However, it can be really useful if you don’t have a specific device for lone workers, for example, community based workers that they know that they can have the smartphone ready.

One activity that we do when we do in-person training with this is we run a scenario where we’ve got an aggressive or abusive person in front of the worker, the worker has to start moving towards an exit… and as they’re moving they’re deploying barrier signals with their hand gestures and so on, just trying to stay safe by managing proximity, and then we actually go through – live – the steps of how to activate that emergency SOS call as well. It can be really useful for some staff to practice that, to run through it before an actual event.

What are some of the weaker points of lone worker safety devices?

We’ve certainly seen concerns from staff that signal strength is an issue and if you work in a rural area, a worker can maybe get caught with not having a signal. But as I understand it, as these devices have developed they actually operate on a specific wavelength I’m told, which has a better chance of retaining signal in poor signal areas. The other thing to mention about lone worker devices of course is that what it does is it alerts your team that you might be in a spot of bother. Immediately is the alert goes out, the responsibility and consequences of action or inaction swing back to you – in the room with the distressed or abusive contact – to deescalate the situation and make your way to safety.

What I would suggest is that you do test a system like this fairly rigorously. Some of the best teams that we’ve met who do use them one of their compliance issues and one of their compliance items is that they have to test their device every month. And I think if you did a year for example, testing the device every month and many times that you’d activated the device there was no signal, I think then you could probably consider in the resourcing issues that are there, come up with a different system around that. We’ve heard about WhatsApp groups and other ways that the teams are managing this with buddy systems and so on. So gather the evidence whether it works or it doesn’t. Find out if there are failings in the system and then go from there.

What can teams do with their information to keep lone workers safer?

Gavin de Becker – a famous threat-assessment professional and author – has a concept called pre-incident indicators, pins, P-I-N-S. And essentially he says, look, in one of these surprising shock stories, these tragedies that happen where people get assaulted and hurt and tragically sometimes killed…when you look into those stories you always find tons of facts that would’ve helped us to forecast and predict that the incident the person was walking into was a really dangerous one.

(we should understand that there are incidents where lone workers are killed. And over a 20 year period up into the mid 1990s, we had more than one lone worker involved in community based services, local authority social work at minimum killed every year in the UK.)

So pre-incident indicators are generally present but missed and they’re often spotted in a post-incident investigation. So my advice is let’s just become more aware of pre-incident indicators, and by all means try to act on them when we know that they’re in play.

One story here is Ronald Dixon, a tragic killing that he committed with a young lone worker called Ashleigh Ewing in the northeast back in 2005. Just to illustrate pre-incident indicators.

He was visited by Ashley Ewing, who wanted to talk to him about some damage that he’d caused inside his flat. She worked for a company called Mental Health Matters. They were contracted by the local authority to do mental health support in the community. He’d smashed up his phone about two weeks before she went to visit him and had been sent a letter saying, “Ronald, you’re going to have to pay for the damage you caused inside your flat.”

On her last day of her six month internship with that organization, she was asked to drop off a second letter to Ronald Dixon which was basically a demand for him to start paying for the damage weekly. Now, to understand how dangerous this was, you look at some of the things that were going on in the few weeks leading up to this, he’d stopped taking his meds. His other social workers had spotted him in the street intoxicated and with shopping bags full of vodka.

He was under financial pressure. Neighbours had noted he was going missing for days at a time and that his behaviour was very erratic. On one of those trips when he went missing for a few days, from his home in the northeast, he travelled down to Buckingham Palace, wandering around until the police picked him up because he was threatening to kill the queen.

Sometime after that he became enraged in his flat one night and smashed up the telephone. And all this was going on and all of it was noted but in varied places by various people.

When Ashley got that request from her manager to ‘simply’ drop off a letter one night, and she went into the house, the results were tragic. He took a knife and killed her extremely violently. And then covered in blood, put the lead on his dog and walked his dog down to the police station, told the police that somebody would need to look after the dog and that he’d just done something terrible.

No matter who really we talk about regarding lone worker personal safety and safely working in the community, this story is a central. It’s such an important story because there’s so many elements to it.

Dogs and Community Safety for Lone Workers

As an aside, the troubled man and murderer in question was a dog owner. There’s an article by Malcolm Gladwell from some years ago called Troublemakers, where he talks about the whole dog-breed issue. One thing he talks about in this article – one of the issues he picks up on is dangerous and out of controlled dogs. He outlines that there is a really meaningful and strong connection between the negligent owners and dangerous dogs. And that he puts forward this case that the dogs that bite people in particular, and the dogs that bite other dogs are in many cases socially isolated because their owners are socially isolated.

Gladwell suggests that these dogs are vicious because they have owners who want a vicious dog. Talking about your personal safety, that connection has to be very important. It essentially means if you’re going to speak to somebody about a dog that may have been out of control, or dog fouling, or other anti-social behaviour related to someone who owns a misbehaving dog, there is a higher risk that the person you’re speaking to is socially isolated for some reason. Potentially that they are not used to dealing with confrontation in a way that we would like.

Why is contact history important for lone worker safety?

Well, we know that the best predictor of violent event is a history of violence and study after study, expert after expert tell us this. So it goes back again to this point – we really should be trying to find out about history, not just of the person that we might be investigating but of the property, business or home as well.

This will give us a really good opportunity to make good decisions about safety – you may not want to visit that person at their home. You may want to send them a note, a letter inviting them into a safe place at your place of work that you control and that you can plan around to have that meeting, especially if you know this history. Some examples of pre-incident indicators are things like somebody who is solid, angry, depressed, somebody who we know has made threats in the past, somebody who is following up on a grievance with the council, persistent contact, complaining about a particular person, for example police encounters, if we knew that they had an interest in weapons, if they’d expressed paranoid thoughts, if they had overly high expectations of the local authority, all of these things could help us in scoring risk in a matrix. The more of these pre-incident indicators that are present, the more risky this person’s profile is.

If we’re aware of them then, as we sit down to talk to a supervisor about whether or not this visit should go ahead, then we can be more informed and make a better decision.

Is information-sharing important for lone worker safety?

There is a story about Graham Burton and Claire Selwood. Graham was a man living in the community abiding mental health problems through his life. Claire Selwood was a social worker who was assessing him as a fit parent for his daughter who was living in his house. And as Claire Selwood did her assessment, things weren’t going so well. In fact, during the assessment his mental health deteriorated and he was admitted to the local mental health facility up in the northeast. While he was there when talking with one of the nurses, he made threats to kill Claire.

So in passing, discussing his life and what was going on with one of the nurses he said, “The next time I see that woman, I’m going to kill her on the spot.” Now this information was recorded to some extent by the nursing and clinical staff at the hospital. However, it was never disclosed to the local authority. She was working for Durham local authority at the time, Durham County Council. And sure enough as the case proceeded and Claire was doing her investigation, there was a meeting called. He was invited to the meeting, Claire Selwood was there. And as they all turned up and the meeting was getting started, he pulled out a steak knife from his jacket and he severely injured her at the meeting.

So did people have the information that could have kept her safe? Yes.

Was the information shared with the people who needed it in time to keep everybody safe? No, it wasn’t.

Claire Selwood survived that attack luckily. But she sustained life changing injuries and didn’t successfully return to the workplace. Sometimes when all the evidence is there in front of us we can avoid these tragic cases if we are paying attention, being decisive and concerned with personal safety issues.

What questions could a lone worker ask before going on a visit?

You can ask a question like “is there any reason that I should be careful in going to this property?” And the answer can be yes or no.

The response could be “on our system, Jim, that’s a two person visit”.

And if that’s all the other team can share with you, at least then it has alerted you to the fact that there could be a safety issue. Maybe then you can you go to your team and decide you’re going to make that a two person visit.

Experience is something you get shortly after you need it.

So you go in, you bring your colleague with you, you come out and he says, “Gosh, I’m glad you brought me today”. And you learn from that experience. I think the most vulnerable people we have in our teams don’t have the 20 years experience, don’t have the life experience and all kinds of things. So if anything today we want to just take that on board as well, I think which is our less experienced colleagues. Don’t send them out there to learn their lesson, because that one lesson could be the time they meet that really nasty character.

Sometimes there are people that – when we find out enough information about them, we decide that nobody should go to the meeting at their house. And that they should be brought into our environment to keep things as safe as possible. And that should be part of your policy I would suggest, part of your procedure.

A lone worker could be meeting someone they don’t have a lot of information about – how should they deal with that situation?

Simply by the fact that you’re a council employee arriving at the house, it could be that they have a nephew, an uncle, or a brother, or a sister, or somebody else in the house who has had these issues and who is threatening and abusive. And that they become the issue for you.

I ask teams when we do in-person training, I say, look, what’s your policy if you’re going to meet Mrs. Jones to have a talk about a misbehaving dog. When you get there, there’s two other people in the house and it’s the last Friday of the month and they’ve just got their Giro. And they’re having a party and there’s a six pack of lager on the kitchen table and you are trying to have this conversation.

Now, obviously the answer to that’s quite simple in that you probably don’t and shouldn’t complete that meeting at that time. But some teams need to be told that, they’ll feel the pressure and that’s a real thing that people experience – the pressure to carry on with a meeting that is not objectively safe.

What’s the role of intuition in Lone Worker Safety?

When we look into these stories and we talk to people about the near misses that they’ve had, we sometimes have these moments where they say, “you know what? I knew straightaway as I parked the car”. Or “I knew immediately I knocked on the door and I heard a noise inside and I knew straight away”. Some people will even say to me, “as I walked up to the property I took in the condition of the front garden, I looked at the last time the front door had been painted or changed. I sort of caught sight of the fact that it was the middle of the day and the curtains were still drawn, and that set me off straightaway. I got a bad feeling”.

And what we have actually is quite a good body of research and knowledge about expert decision making that says you really need to listen to your intuition when your intuition tells you something’s wrong. Author Gavin DeBecker said (paraphrasing) nature’s greatest accomplishment, the human brain is never working better than when it’s trying to keep you safe.

So the key and difficult thing about intuition is that often somebody they’ll come back to the office and they’ll say, “you know what? I went out to have this visit, wanted to investigate the details about an incident but I got there and something told me that I just shouldn’t go in. And I couldn’t tell you why. I couldn’t tell you what the important factor or the stimulating issue was. I can’t tell you why, but I know I shouldn’t have gone in there”. And that is the definition of intuition, “knowing something without knowing why”.

One of the ways we understand that is that your brain registers patterns, and patterns of behavior, patterns of danger, and when your brain registers on anomaly, a change in an established pattern, it will attempt to activate your survival system.

That activation is not a ringing bell or an alarm klaxon, it’s just a kind of uneasiness somewhere deep in your being. As an expert and somebody who spends most of their professional working life helping people in the community who sometimes become unpredictable, it can be really important that you get used to that slight alarm feeling when it happens and pay attention to it.

The key is not getting used to it and suppressing it, which I think is one message I want to come back to in a moment. But just think about this – if we go back to the Ronald Dixon story, and consider Ashleigh Ewing … it’s her last day of her internship. She gets the letter, she puts it in her back pocket and she drives out into the community. And she rocks up to this front door to knock on it.

And when the door opens, this 39 year old man, Ronald Dixon opens the door. He’s a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. He’s been off his meds for weeks. He’s been drinking heavily. He’s been away for nights on end down at Buckingham Palace and been quite delirious, threatening to kill the queen and all the rest of it. And then he smashed his telephone up the other week…

If you can get a picture of what that person looks like in your mind just now, and that person we described opens the door and you’re there to talk about an issue that’s really emotional for him….this man’s life is falling apart before his eyes and he’s got all sorts of additional issues complicating his life. And then the door opens and you look at him and he looks at you, and is it possible that you would get a bad feeling?

You’d get some kind of deep feeling about whether he’s okay, whether he is not okay, whether it’s okay for you to go into the house or not. And the point is very clearly, if you get that feeling I want you to stop for a moment and really ask, why am I feeling like this?

What is the problem with denial in lone worker safety?

A lot of things will get in the way of intuition, what De Becker calls “denial – not the river in Egypt”.

So you might be there on the doorstep and think, “wow, this person looks a mess”. If you deny what your survival system is telling you in that moment, it may not be very good for your safety. And I think this is a critical moment for us because there’s so many ways we can suppress that feeling.

“All I’m doing is dropping off a letter. How bad could it get?”.

Somebody who’s not very experienced in doing these visits might rely on the office keeping them safe, so they’ll think, “look, the office wouldn’t have sent me here if he was really a dangerous character.“

Surely, “they wouldn’t have sent me on my own if this person was threatening and abusive and was really dangerous to me.”

Well, if you’ve seen the movie Airplane, then you know “Don’t Call Me Surely!”.

Some people on our teams are really caring. Sometimes we recruit people because they’re really good. We recruit staff because they’re really good with people, they’re compassionate, they demonstrate care, they demonstrate compassion when they work with vulnerable people in particular.

And so when the door opens, this person might look at the image of the person in front of them, get a bad feeling and something internal in their wiring says, “gosh, this poor man he really needs my help. I’m going to have a good chat with him. Let me go into the house and we’ll have a cup of tea.”

Another way denial expresses itself is that often people just in a kind of a protective mindset they think, “listen, those things never happen to me.”

That’s a bit naive and in 16 years of experience of working with people who do community-based working, one end of the spectrum is this naivety. “Things like that don’t happen to me”.

“It would never happen to me.”

“Why would it happen to me?”

At the other end of the scale I’m afraid there’s a complacency that kicks in.

“I’ve been doing this for 25 years and nobody’s ever pulled a knife on me yet.”

Or even worse, “I’ve been doing this for 25 years, somebody did pull a knife on me once but I talked him out of it. So I’ll be able to do that every time.”

And we’ve really got a guard against both – for our newer workers, the naivety side of things, and for our more experienced workers the slight complacency that might kick in about personal safety. T

The last one is something that I’ve referred to over the years as a kind of machismo or ego based decision making at that front door. This doorstep decision making where the door opens, the worker gets a bad feeling and they say to themselves, “gosh, I really don’t want to do this. I have a bad feeling about it but what am I going to tell them at the office? They’ll all laugh at me. They’ll think I’m weak. They already think I’m not up to the job and I’m not going to go back to the office and tell the gang there that I didn’t get all the information I needed in the investigation.”

And that is a really critical moment.

Putting these ideas in front of your team and just saying, look, if you get a bad feeling, if in doubt just get out is a very valid strategy for us to keep ourselves safe. We’ve got to guard against these issues of denial.

Are Lone Workers Experts in Personal Safety?

You’re an expert. Some people reading this interview will have been doing community-based work, in their own community, for many years. I often do the maths when I’m sitting in front of a group, I’ll ask somebody to volunteer and say, how many investigations? How many citizens do you meet on a given week? And then we’ll multiply that out over the year and then we’ll multiply that out over how many years the person’s been doing the job. And someone will have tens of thousands of interactions with dog owners over her career, tens of thousands.

And so I would say to somebody like that, look, if you’re interacting with somebody and you get a bad feeling, it’s based on tens and tens of thousands of interactions that you’ve had. And you really can depend on that bad feeling, that knowing without knowing – because it’s based on expertise.

There’s a great book called Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, where he talks about the power of thinking without thinking and these thin slices of experience that we might have. And what he means by that in this context is the time it takes for you to knock on a door and the door to fully open or for you to see the person in front of you, three and a half seconds or something, he said that’s a thin slice. And for an expert that’s enough time for you to make a decision about whether this meeting is going to go smoothly or the meeting is going to be a rocky one. And most experienced community-based workers, when I ask them that question they start nodding vigorously.

Experts who make snap judgements are more-often accurate.

Do you make snap judgments? And of course in this day and age, we’re asked not to make snap judgments because it opens the opportunity to be judgmental. But I’m going to say to you, you are allowed to be judgmental in one area of your life at least and that is your personal safety.

You have to be judgmental about your personal safety.

Snap judgments about personal safety, based on your expertise and your experience are super important. Intuition and expertise can appear as a suspicion, it can be a hesitation, just a moment where your attention is drawn to something, a slight doubt, a gut feeling, a hunch when you wonder to, I wonder why that is, or I wonder what’s behind that door. A sort of curiosity.

I’ve met some people over the years who’ve said that, well, I got there and I was walking up to the door and I told myself a little joke, “I hope I get through this one okay” – that sort of dark humor that we engage in can sometimes hide intuitive thoughts about our safety.

That’s your intuition talking to you – persistent feelings, nagging thoughts, all really important to pay attention to.

How can Lone Workers foster a supportive atmosphere during their visits and meetings?

How do we interact with people and do we interact with them in a way that’s supportive? Do we treat everybody we meet with dignity and do we show them respect when we interact with them? That has direct influence on safety as well. Sometimes what you’ll find in the team is that one member of the team garners more complaints than the others. More of the complaints gravitate towards one member of your team, and that’s often a sign that they need some guidance and support on how they deal with people. And we should do that sooner rather than later because ultimately they’ll meet somebody who will escalate faster and harder than the other people they’ve met and they’ll trigger them off. And you might have an adverse incident at the back of it.

Can Body Language help to keep Lone Workers safe?

We manage safety when we’re at a visit by making sure we’re working at the appropriate distances and that we’re positioned appropriately. When you’re working in somebody else’s house, one of the important things is that the person enters first. So it’s very much a case of, “after you, you show me where we’re going” type of interaction.

What that means is that you are moving into the house and you are by default closer to the exit. So you should have a sense of where your exits are. As soon as you are moving inside the house, I would suggest you need to know where the back door exit is, even though sometimes the back door exit will lead to another enclosed space like the back garden or a close or something like that.

But nevertheless, just being aware where are my exits right now is hugely important. Even though there are some challenges with running for the doo if it gets to that. In working with lone workers all the time I ask people, do you sit down? And if so, where do you sit down and how do you sit down? So there’s a quick tip here about where if you are going to sit down, you want to be again closer to the exit if at all possible. And in brackets, I know in my head I’m saying Murphy’s law applies when somebody brings you into their front room and they offer you the chair that it’s at the far side of the front room, you’ll have to make a decision as to whether you appear somewhat rude in saying, no, you’re all right. I don’t want to sit in that chair and figure out a way of charming your way into another chair. Or you assess the danger, you assess the route to your exit and you do sit where you’ve been offered for example.

There are some practices that we actually do in in-person training as well, around which way you sit. Generally speaking you’re going to perch on the edge of a chair with your feet in a position where you’re ready to get up and move if you need to. So, for example it could be that a dog gets free from a room and comes barreling down the stairs and comes into the room. You want to be ready to stand up. And additionally then we talk about barrier signals and keeping your hands in a place, especially let’s say if you are in an encounter with somebody and they do get upset and they start to encroach into your space, we teach people to use their hands as barriers.

We have hand positions that we teach which give the message that I’m trying to help…and please work with me and… I can see you’re upset and I understand that, if we can sit back down for a moment.

I’m using my hands in this way, they’re up above my waist between me and the person I’m engaging with. And it is much easier then – if something comes flying across the room, be it spit saliva, be it a cup of tea, be it somebody throwing their hands at you, that you’re much more able to let your instinctive protection kick in. The body’s instinctive protective behaviors activate and it has a better opportunity to keep objects from impacting with your head or your face, which would be massively distracting if not in injurious and dangerous for you.

So we teach people to create these barriers with their hands and keep them moving congruent with modeling calmness and communicating professionalism the whole time.

What is the issue with saying “if in doubt, get out” and leaving it at that?

Another exercise I do in the in-person training is we talk about, look, regardless of the fact that the exit, the door to get you out of the building is behind you, you still have to think about the fact that if the person is running at you or encroaching really quickly, it’s going to take you an awful lot of time to get to that door. And one of the things we want to think about ahead of time is whether or not you should turn to go to that door. So we actually practice having somebody pointing their finger at us and we actually practice having these “stop hands” up in front, moving backwards safely towards the door.

But with keeping in mind the fact that if things start to move really suddenly, I may have to create distance in order to get to the front door and get out. And there are some numbers that we know about. From the early 1980s one of the numbers that we know is that a motivated assailant can cover 21 feet in one and a half seconds. And so 21 feet is much longer than the width of most of the front rooms you’ll be going into or kitchens or wherever you might be working. And one and a half seconds is about as much time as you get. So if you think the average room’s about 10 feet wide, that gives you three quarters of a second to respond.

And so this idea, if in doubt just get out is great earlier in the situation, then we need to deploy deescalation skills. Verbal skills try and keep things at a certain level. But really as soon as things start moving quickly, we need to be ready for that and ready to create space so that we can run for the door. A somewhat controversial idea I would think, but one that’s based on the science of use of force and kinetic collisions of bodies in these assaults.

One other thing is that you’re scanning for exits, but also maybe scanning for assets and allies. So you might want to note if there’s a telephone in the house, just in case an emergency happens. You might want to note that the next door neighbor is out gardening at the moment as you walk into the house.

You may want to note that your colleague is in the same area as you, for example, at that time.

How can lone workers defuse tense situations?

Using your words to take defuse the situation, the imagery there is important, defusing. So defusing means to take the fuse of the bomb.

To start with we want to make sure that if we’re talking about any of sensitive issues which might have consequences, that we’re simply being polite. We’re treating the person with dignity and showing them respect. Especially if we are on their territory, in their front room, it’ll feel very intrusive to be in that space and discussing those things.

It can be really important to ease tension in a situation, to listen and to empathize with the person’s perspective.

It’s a great, really simple model if you like, is that at the beginning of any interaction is to ask clarifying questions and open the discussion up about maybe the incidents you’re investigating.

And just to make sure that the person feels like they have the opportunity to explain themselves.

One major trigger for people is not being heard. The feeling of not being listened to, the feeling of just being ignored or for not having their side of things explained clearly. So simply the acts of listening carefully and mindfully and then empathizing with a person, – “I can see that must have been difficult. I can understand where you’re coming from. If that had happened to me, I’m sure I would’ve been frustrated too.” As simple as they sound, as I say them to you today, when we get people replicating these scenarios’ face to face that skill of listening and empathizing is one of the weakest skills across the workforce that I see.

Why is listening and empathising so important for lone worker safety?

And even in my work in healthcare and in social care and so on, people tend to go to diagnosing and to telling. They tell, well, this is the problem. This is what we see and I’m afraid this isn’t okay. And let me tell you all the ways this isn’t right and now let me tell you what’s going to happen. And so what you’re doing if you’re into telling mode too quickly, is you haven’t bought enough emotional credit with the person to start telling them what’s going to happen next. So just a simple model for you today is to really think about listening and empathizing early. And that buys you a kind of social credit then to later on start making sense of the situation with the person, explaining your perspective, having seen things through their eyes, and then explaining what may happen next. And just think of it as two halves of a conversation like that, you have to deposit into this social bank using listening and empathy.

And then you can withdraw by making requests and asking the person to go along with a program with you. And that’s a real feature of the most persuasive people will meet in the workplace.

“if they’ve got something to gain or lose, that’s what you use.”

You’ve got something to use, so that’s where finding out about the person’s circumstances, who lives with them, who shares care just finding out the context… We call it tactical empathy, tactical listening. Drawing out the details which are going to help you to navigate this second part of the conversation –  if they’ve got something to gain or lose, you’ve got something to use. And even in some of the more serious situations that we see, this has the same meaning in that…

I’ll talk in a moment about sort of criminal or asocial violence, situations where people have been targeted for violence, that this meeting’s been arranged as a kind of instrumental violence and the contact has planned to do something nasty, even then the arithmetic of the interaction can be changed by you if you are thinking “what does this person stand to gain in the next few minutes from our interaction?”. “What can I emphasize to them right now that they stand to lose?”

So just to make an example, if you are using a lone worker device and you have activated it, simply saying to the contact that “look, I’ve already let my colleagues know that I’m here and they’re currently making phone calls, which means somebody will be along to knock on the door and join me to deal with this in a few minutes.” can possibly defuse the situation.

Just simply changing the mathematics of the, if you like, “cost-benefit analysis” that a person might be doing when they decide to lock this worker in their home. If you can change the mathematics slightly by saying, look, this is what’s happening. You wouldn’t want to get in trouble by doing that, would you? These kinds of statements can be really critical in more dangerous situations.

How can lone workers and people who work in the community recognise that a person is trying to manipulate them?

What if someone wants to intimidate you or manipulate you? There are specific ways in which people using instrumental violence, people who’ve planned to do some kind of violent incident or violent action, they sometimes try and lull us into a false sense of ease or security.

They use these different methods to do it, something called forced teaming where they start saying, well, look, we are all in this together, aren’t we? and they’re kind of using a teaming strategy with you where we’re on the same side. Now that may sound like a collaborative approach which is something we want to promote, but again if it feels wrong, if it’s too early in the encounter, if it’s not yet appropriate in the relationship that’s not going to be right.

Typecasting, for example that all people from the council are the same. You never listen to me. Too many details, a good lie will include lots of more detail than the simple story itself. So if you start hearing too many details in an explanation, you may get the feeling that somebody’s trying to manipulate you. An unsolicited promise is somebody saying, I’m going to lock the door but “don’t worry, you’re all right with me – I promise I won’t hurt you.” That’s an unsolicited promise. And again, one of the clearest things that should raise an alarm straight away.

Lone sharking, I’ll do this for you if you do this for me. Sometimes a really difficult situation to be in. And then discounting no – you might have to say to somebody, listen, for various reasons including our team’s policy, I’m not allowed to be in here with the door locked just in case something happens and we need to get out quickly. If there’s a kitchen fire or something like that, we can’t have the front door locked. Now, if somebody doesn’t hear your no, that should raise an alarm. Again, that’s called discounting no, anytime you say no to somebody and they seem to ignore it.

There’s lots of more detail around those in DeBecker’s book, but I thought I’d cover them briefly.

In all of these situations, you want to challenge the moment and mentally become alert to them and then keep working through your de-escalation model.

What should a lone worker do in an extreme moment of danger?

In an extreme situation I would say to you, just like this woman in Edinburgh, you have to remember: what are the consequences if I don’t get out of here? We call that a survival anchor.

For some people it’s really easy. Some people who have family at home, somebody who relies on them to come home from work – that is often the image in their mind, the emotional anchor that they use, to help them to make really critical decisions in the key moment.

I tell the story of this woman in Edinburgh. She was overpowered and threatened with a knife in a man’s house. He was a seasoned criminal with a history of violence against men and women. He’d been in prison for I think more than 15 years of his 40 odd years on the planet at this time.

And she successfully fought him off.

She took a coffee cup and slammed it into his face as he attempted to rape her. And she fought him off for a period of minutes inside a flat in Leith in Edinburgh, until the neighbors called the police. The police got there really quickly and they actually let a dog into the house to take him down to end the incident. And so she got really lucky.

This story is a really great example of this survival anchor idea, this motivation that we need to be able to pull through in a situation like that. It prompts me to mention the lone worker’s right to use reasonable force in such a situation.

Somebody might be a little bit worried that on a personal safety chat for local authority employees and so on, that we’re talking about using a mug as an offensive weapon in a situation like this!

But considering that the law in the UK and around the world allows for “reasonable force in the circumstances”, I think I can say this: I can’t think of a more dangerous situation than being on one’s own in the community, in somebody else’s house when they resort to violence. That’s a seriously risky situation to be in. And generally speaking, I would say the staff member involved would be justified in considering high levels of force to get out of that situation, if they’re really under physical threat of rape or serious injury such as in this story.

Hopefully as you reflect on the rest of this interview today, you can see that we started with policies and procedures and risk assessments. We then moved to things you can do as a team to make these visits more safe. Things you can do as an individual, trusting your intuition to keep yourself at a distance from these incidents.

We discussed in brief some deescalation and verbal strategies, physical movement strategies, and then here we have arrived finally at the question of actual physical self protection. There are levels of preparation here that we can do.

Any last thoughts for managers of lone working teams?

Hopefully this presentation helped to clarify some legal points. It maybe gave you some things to talk about as a team – Information sharing is so important. If you took the message about trusting your intuition, about thinking about pre-incident indicators of violence, and then a couple of points about movement and words or behavior that would deescalate these high stakes encounters if they happen. I talked in brief about how to think and how to focus during the most risky situations that you might be in. If you took the messages on-board and can action them, your people will be safer.

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Gerard O'Dea

Gerard O'Dea is the Director of Training for Dynamis. Training Advisor, Speaker, Author and Expert Witness on Personal Safety, Conflict Management and Physical Interventions, he is the European Advisor for Vistelar Conflict Management, a global programme focussing on the spectrum of human conflict.

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