Today, the UK’s water industry faces a rising tide of responsibilities: our 14 suppliers now oversee more than 650,000km of sewers and water mains, as well as 650 reservoirs across the country.i As a vital public utility seeing constant use, it’s paramount that this enormous system keeps flowing smoothly. To accomplish this, employees are often called on at unusual hours and face a huge variety of hazardous working conditions: from remote areas and confined underground spaces, to water treatment plants filled with heavy machinery.
Opening the floodgates to lone working
Given the vast size of the UK’s water networks, it’s no surprise that the industry is investing heavily in automation to drive down costs; Thames Water alone is due to spend £84m by 2020.ii This admirable drive for efficiency also means that it’s becoming increasingly common for employees to work alone, as they carry out everything from routine checks on water quality to essential repairs. Just one operator, Anglian Water, now estimates it has 2,500 lone workers regularly visiting remote locations.iii
These employees face complex challenges. Take the typical example of repairing a sewer main in a public area. Workers not only face dangers like confined underground spaces, toxic gases, sudden flooding after heavy rain and falls into excavations, but also risks such as passing traffic or unauthorised persons entering the site. Meanwhile, mobile coverage is often patchy or non-existent underground and, in the event of an emergency, such hard-to-reach areas also make a rapid response by the emergency services more difficult.
Water treatment plants, another common place of work, bring their own deluge of hazards. Employees must often work out of sight of colleagues, automatic machinery can start without warning, deep or fast-flowing water is common and other dangers like high noise levels or hazardous chemicals are frequent. Situations can get out of hand quickly; for instance if an employee falls into a mixer tank (where mechanical equipment is turning below the surface) they can be sucked underwater in moments due to low buoyancy.
Tapping into safety
With the water industry presenting varied hazards, the right safety precautions are critical to protect both employees and the public. Workers must have a reliable means to summon help as quickly as possible, even in remote or underground areas without mobile coverage, or in situations where they may be unconscious or unable to sound the alarm. Automated lone worker solutions can help: for instance, when LONEALERT’s shock and water resistant Man Down Plus Alarm detects falls, it audibly warns the user and then raises an alert if there’s no response. Of course, it’s equally critical to create emergency response plans and educate employees on the risks, ensuring they’re trained to evaluate and cope with potential hazards as they appear.
Putting in place the right technologies and training to protect lone workers shouldn’t be a drain on the water industry’s resources; in fact, it can improve efficiency. With the ability to cost-effectively monitor and support employees, water companies can more easily coordinate activity across their networks in both routine and emergency situations. LONEALERT’s Anywhere solution is a good example of this in action: delivering a rugged, waterproof handset that can track an employee’s location via GPS and seamlessly update a web-based management suite with relevant information.
With a robust approach to monitoring and supporting workers, the water industry can surf a wave of success: minimising interruptions to critical public services, reducing the business cost of injured employees and ensuring a speedy and efficient response to emergencies.
- Clear First, The UK Water Industry – Every Drop Counts, 2015: http://www.clearfirstwatermainreplacement.co.uk/uk-water-industry-infographic/
- Water Briefing, Thames Water awards £84m control and automation AMP6 contracts, 2014: http://www.waterbriefing.org/home/contracts/item/9133-thames-water-awards-%C2%A384m-control-and-automation-amp6-contracts
- Computer Weekly, Automated messaging service provides safety lifeline for lone waterboard workers, 2014: http://www.computerweekly.com/feature/Automated-messaging-service-provides-safety-lifeline-for-lone-waterboard-workers