Wednesday 7 December 2016

The right moves: Dwyer case highlights safety of estate agents

Paul McNeive

Published 09/04/2015 | 02:30

Graham Dwyer is led away after his conviction for murder. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Graham Dwyer is led away after his conviction for murder. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Estate agent Suzy Lamplugh went missing in 1986 and was declared dead in 1994

Having inspected a lot of properties recently, it occurred to me again that agents, and women in particular, are potentially at risk when showing vacant properties to unknown viewers.

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I got a shiver down my spine when evidence in the Graham Dwyer murder trial alleged that a named female agent had been targeted and would be isolated by making an appointment to view a property she was handling, using a false name and mobile phone. Estate agents and other property professionals who work alone are undoubtedly vulnerable and must ensure that safety procedures are part of the daily routine and not a set of aspirations buried in a procedures manual.

The tragic case of Suzy Lamplugh brought this issue to the fore in 1986. Suzy Lamplugh was an estate agent in London and at short notice she accepted an appointment to show a vacant property in Fulham. She was never seen again and it transpired that the "viewer" had used a false name and an untraceable mobile phone number. Her parents founded the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, dedicated to raising awareness of the risks for estate agents and providing advice and training.

Their website contains good advice for any firm on the importance of verifying the identity of any viewers or potential vendors by landline only and tracking where all staff are going and when they are due back. They provide information on different types of personal attack alarms and protective equipment and mobile phone alarms which not only send a distress message to nominated numbers but use GPS technology to identify your location.

Of course a robust safety regime which minimises risk is far preferable to depending on alarms and according to the Health and Safety Authority the employer holds the main responsibility for protecting lone workers and must assess if women are especially at risk where they work alone. "Lone workers" must also take responsibility to help their employer fulfil this duty, must ensure that they implement their employer's procedures and if in any doubt should decline an appointment or not attend unaccompanied.

I spoke with a few of the larger firms and they all have procedures to protect their staff. These usually include a requirement to verify viewers' identities in advance and some firms operate buddy systems where each lone worker double checks the safety of their colleague before, during and after viewings. Many firms have "alert codewords" which can be casually used in a call back to the office to request help if feeling threatened. All of these procedures are included in staff induction training.

These are good systems but procedures manuals are useless if the procedures aren't always adhered to. The great danger is that it's very easy for a busy agent to enthusiastically accept another viewing without going through all the checks. Again,, speaking with some of the firms, there's an acceptance that complacency is a danger. Not only that but some of the younger agents I spoke to were not even aware of the evidence in the Dwyer trial.

If you are running a firm are you absolutely certain that the temporary secretary in the commercial department is double checking all the appointments they're putting in staff diaries? Also, in many firms induction training can take place in groups of new staff so there can be a delay before everyone gets all this training. Are all your staff clearly aware of possible risks and how to avoid them? Safety procedures should be part of regular retraining sessions and should be practised in drills to avoid any panic in a real life emergency.

Property professionals regularly find themselves inspecting vacant buildings alone which are often part completed and unlit with voids in floors, lift shafts with no lifts and staircases with no handrails. There are a few legendary stories of agents overnighting in broken lifts or locked into vacant buildings with no mobile phone. Even walking around a site or farm alone presents risks. Anytime someone visits a property alone there must be a routine of checking back with the office, or else the alarm is raised.

There are great career opportunities in property and risks can be reduced by a rigorous safety regime. I would be more concerned about smaller firms which don't have HR departments to manage safety procedures. The industry has just had one hell of a wake up call.

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