Safety of mobile staff is law

New technologies such as personal digital assistants, wireless Lans, and notebook computers have facilitated the mobility of the...

New technologies such as personal digital assistants, wireless Lans, and notebook computers have facilitated the mobility of the modern workforce but it is unwise for employers to treat employees based away from the office differently from those stuck behind a desk, writes Rakhi Talwar.

Mobile workers on the road are a case in point. The UK has a large mobile workforce comprising those involved in road transportation, tradespeople, sales staff and workers in construction to name but a few.

Safety background
In November 2001 a report released by the Work-Related Road Safety Action Task Group estimated that between a quarter and a third of all road traffic incidents in the UK involved someone who was at work at the time. Despite this, there are strong indications that companies are failing to manage health and safety risks associated with at-work road activities as part of their systems for managing health and safety risks within the workplace.

The absence of corporate enthusiasm in this regard stems, perhaps, from a lack of awareness that employers can be liable in connection with road traffic incidents caused by their workers.

You could be liable
Employers may be prosecuted for causing or permitting a worker to drive a vehicle in a dangerous condition or without a proper driving licence; for failing to inspect goods vehicles; or for setting timetables for reaching a destination which can only be met if speed restrictions are broken by the driver. Prosecutions may also be brought for aiding and abetting the commission of a relevant offence under the Magistrates Court Act 1980.

There is possibly another more insidious reason for the lack of corporate commitment to managing health and safety risks out of the workplace. It is road traffic law, rather than health and safety regulation that presides over road traffic matters, which means it is the police and not health and safety regulators who investigate and enforce this area.

In most cases, the police carry out investigations without detailed (if any) consideration being given to whether a failure to manage health and safety management systems might have contributed to the cause of an incident. Consequently, in the majority of cases, employees, rather than employers, are prosecuted.

Employers should not take false comfort from their lack of exposure to date. In its recent report to the Government, the Work-Related Safety Task Group advocated a series of changes to increase the accountability of employers, including "a more rigorous application of existing health and safety at work law to on-the-road work activities".

Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 states, "It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health safety and welfare at work of all its employees." The phrase "at work" is construed widely. An employee is "at work" throughout the time that he or she is in the course of employment.

Employers also owe a duty to the general public. They are required by section 3 of the Act "to conduct their undertaking in such a way as to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that persons not in their employment who may be affected... are not exposed to risks to their health and safety".

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations extend these duties by requiring all employers to assess the health and safety risks to employees while at work and others who may be affected by the conduct of their undertaking.

What should you do?
Employers must extend the scope of their policies to ensure that risks faced and caused by their workers on the road are minimised. This requires a wholesale review of existing policies and systems relating among other things, to drivers' license checks, working time, scheduling for journeys, recording and supervision, use of mobile phones in vehicles and vehicle maintenance.

The use of technology to track and monitor the progress of vehicles may assist employers with fleets of vehicles on the road to comply with some of their obligations.

Management buy in and education of staff will be fundamental to the development of stronger safety values. In the long term taking action means employers will benefit from less lost worker time, better delivery and reduced insurance costs, and a happier workforce.

Rakhi Talwar is a solicitor at City law firm DLA

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