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Site safety and lone working

Ecology Site Surveys

Working outdoors in all weather and in a variety of situations is all in a day’s work for an ecologist.  But how do you make site work as safe as possible?  Kate Priestman explores some of the options…

I’m going to hold my hand up and say that there have been times during the course of my work as an ecologist that I have felt uneasy about a situation I have found myself in whilst on site. The nature of the work often demands unsociable hours in publicly accessible places and the sites themselves can range from an urban office block, through to derelict brownfield land and remote rural areas.

Working in pairs for all ‘out of hours’ work in the evening and early morning, and for sites where terrain is difficult, remote or near water is mandatory for many companies; even so, working in pairs does not provide surety of safety against threats such as personal attack. Procedure for site work varies considerably from organisation to organisation and I wonder: are we doing enough?

In addition to the standard risk assessments and procedures that are typically the norm when carrying out surveys, there are a multitude of products available to assist in making site visits as safe as possible. Below is a summary overview of a few of these products – whilst often aimed at ‘lone workers’, it is worth considering the use of these devices whether working alone or with colleagues.

Personal alarms:

Probably the most widely known personal safety solution that involves a one-off payment and can be purchased in a wide variety of forms is the personal alarm. These devices are intended for use when somebody feels that they are at risk of attack. The alarm is intended to shock a would-be attacker, giving the surveyor time to get away or alert assistance from those within hearing.

Depending on the model, in order to activate the device you generally pull out a pin, squeeze it, or press a button. They can be battery operated or gas powered and are audio based, i.e. they emit a very loud and unpleasant sound when activated.

Whilst these devices are useful to carry around, they are very much aimed at one kind of safety risk and do not cover the full range of situations that a surveyor may encounter on site. In addition to personal attack, risks also include injury, illness or even becoming lost if working in a remote area (…if your sense of direction is anything like mine, you don’t have to be in a remote area to lose track of where you are!).

Personal safety devices linked to an operating centre:

These devices are varied in their operating capabilities and functionality, but essentially they provide a means of swiftly alerting a ‘call centre’ when something goes wrong. The surveyor is supplied with a simple device that can be worn about the person in a number of different ways, for example, on a cord around the neck, attached to a belt or attached to a keyring.

There is usually a red alert/panic button on the device that is pressed in an emergency, which instantly alerts an operator who can open up an audio channel to the device, listening into the situation and making contact with the surveyor. Operators are trained to assess the situation and alert the emergency services where necessary. The device sends back GPS information to the operator, which can then be used to locate the surveyor.

A few devices operate an amber/pre-set alert system whereby in advance of the survey, the surveyor records their location, activity and the time that they expect to have completed the activity. If the alert is not disabled by the expected time of completion, an operator is notified and a red alert procedure is implemented – the alert can be altered as the surveyor goes along, so if the survey is taking longer than expected, the anticipated finish time can be amended accordingly.

Some devices have the capability to alert an operator when the device has stopped moving for a certain amount of time. This is intended to cover situations where surveyors may be too badly injured to raise the alarm by themselves.

Using GPS, these devices are often linked to online software that allow somebody authorised to remotely monitor the whereabouts of the person carrying the device (e.g. an employer), in addition to the operating centre.

There is a monthly cost associated with these types of devices, which varies depending on the device functionality and the company supplying the service.

When looking to purchase one of these systems, it is generally advised that the device chosen be compliant with the British Standard for lone working: BS 8484:2016.

Devices for working in areas with no mobile signal:

When working in areas with no mobile signal, devices are available which bypass the need to talk to an operator. A red alert/panic button sends GPS information directly to the emergency services. The surveyor can also regularly send and save their location, which allows people to remotely track their whereabouts via downloaded software. Amber alert systems can be pre-set and are monitored by software, so that if the surveyor does not disable the alert by the set time, emergency services are contacted and sent a current GPS location for the surveyor – again, the pre-set alert time can be altered in the field if a survey is taking longer than expected.

Lone worker apps:

These can be downloaded to a smartphone or tablet and effectively turn the phone or tablet into a personal safety device. They essentially have the same functionality as a device specifically supplied for this purpose, i.e. red alert/panic button system, amber alert/pre-set system, ‘man-down’ system and location facilities.  They rely on GPS and the functionality varies according to the type of smartphone or tablet.

Links to mobile phones:

It is also possible, as a low cost solution, to use a mobile phone for red/panic and amber/pre-set alert systems without needing to download an app. The functionality of this is reduced compared to other systems, but it may be useful if the surveyor only occasionally needs to use this type of service or has a limited budget.

It is useful to invest in a portable charger/power bank to accompany the above solutions. These come in a wide range of sizes and are relatively inexpensive. They provide reassurance that you can give your phone or safety device a much needed power boost when the battery is running low – just remember to charge them before you go out!

The above safety devices should only ever be used in addition to other safe systems of work. It is always important to cover the basics before going out on site. Complete a risk assessment and try to obtain as much information as possible beforehand. There are various sources that can be utilised in addition to speaking to clients – for example, viewing online aerial photographs of the site and surrounds and using ‘streetview’ tools to ‘drive’ around the roads surrounding the site, enables you to check out the general vibe of the area, familiarise yourself visually with the site and note safe access and egress points.

In addition: make sure that you take phone numbers with you – ideally pre-programmed into the phone so that you’re not scratching around for bits of paper; tell people where you are going; check in with people as need be; wear correct personal protective equipment for the site conditions; receive appropriate training; have the appropriate fitness levels required to undertake the survey safely; decide on the best means of transport; familiarise yourself where the nearest facilities are; allow enough time to undertake the work and have appropriate rest breaks; notify the police in advance if necessary; take spares of items such as batteries; wear the right clothing for the weather conditions – be prepared to cancel the survey in bad weather; and ensure communication is easily available when working with others on site.

The bottom line is to be as prepared as possible and do not use safety devices as an excuse to be less vigilant, cut back on the site prep, or put yourself in a situation that you wouldn’t ordinarily put yourself in should you not have such a device with you. Lastly, but most importantly, always walk away if you feel uncomfortable.

About the Author:  Kate Priestman (CEnv, MCIEEM) has over sixteen years experience as an ecologist.  Prior to setting up her own consultancy business in 2012, Kate worked in London for over a decade, providing the lead ecology role for a number of high profile projects.  Kate works as an artist, writer and editor.

All images are ©Kate Priestman