Mike Sopp examines the legal responsibilities of employers to manage work-related violence and looks at the benefits of conflict resolution training.

Introduction

Many employees, particularly those whose work activities involve contact with the general public, can be exposed to aggressive behaviour, both verbal and physical.

Statistics indicate that for the majority of employees, verbal abuse is more prevalent than actual physical violence. However, both can have negative impacts for the individual and employer alike.

Employers have a legal responsibility to assess the risk from violence and aggression and take the necessary steps to eliminate or reduce the risk. This could include the use of techniques to avoid conflict situations or as a last resort to physically intervene.

Setting policy

Under health and safety legislation, employers have a legal responsibility to manage work-related violence. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) suggests that the approach should be based upon:

  • determining if there is a problem through completion of a suitable and sufficient risk assessment

  • identifying what action needs to be taken using safe place, safe system and safe person risk control measures

  • implementing the action needed and then checking the measures for their effectiveness.

Where an intolerable risk is identified, the employer should set out a policy on work-related violence. In essence, the policy should describe the overall intentions and sense of direction of the organisation. It should provide the framework that will enable the setting and reviewing of objectives related to violence and aggression.

However, it also needs to be realistic, neither overstating the nature of the risks the organisation faces, nor trivialising them. The policy can also detail any specific procedures required to maximise employee’s safety including the provision of training. In general, the objectives of training will be to:

  • give employees confidence and self-reliance in terms of their safety and the use of risk control measures particularly if working alone

  • provide general confidence in undertaking day-to-day public-facing activities

  • get employee buy-in to the policy and procedures on violence and aggression.

It is for the employer to determine through a risk assessment what measures to implement (including training) but guidance from the HSE states that employers should train employees “so that they can spot the early signs of aggression and either avoid it or cope with it”.

Conflict resolution training

So-called conflict resolution training can be deemed to be a preventive tool as it can assist in reducing the risk of incidents occurring or even preventing them. This approach is often used so as to minimise the requirement to physically restrain individuals, which by its nature can still result in physical harm to employees and public alike.

The aim of conflict resolution training is to provide employees with the skills to spot signs of a potentially violent incident (behaviour recognition) and teaches them the necessary de-escalation, communication and calming techniques so that they can effectively manage potential conflict situations (avoidance and disengagement).

There are no specific guidelines on conflict resolution training and what such training should constitute but many larger organisations such as the NHS has produced its own in-house syllabus based upon occupational standards such as the Skill CFA-Prevention and Management of Violence in the Workplace standard.

Training delivery will normally require a classroom-based approach possibly supported by a certain amount of eLearning. Typical content of training would include:

  • a summary of roles and the management of violence and aggression in the organisation

  • identification of what constitutes conflict, how it arises and how individuals can effectively reduce the risks of conflicting

  • the role of communication in calming and de-escalating potential conflict situations

  • an outline of the procedural, environmental and legal context of violence in a workplace

  • the actions to be taken by employees and employer after a violent incident has occurred.

The key aspects are ensuring that employees are aware of the circumstances or situations that can cause conflict, the signs that conflict may arise and finally what options are available to them to avoid or de-escalate the situation.

Of interest, the NHS syllabus on conflict resolution training suggests there are various stages or escalations to conflict, these being frustration, anger, aggression, intimidation, threats and assault.

The theory behind any conflict resolution training is therefore to recognise these behaviours at the earliest possible stage so as to avoid the escalation of the conflict situation.

In summary, the options available to individuals when faced with a potential conflict situation are communication (with the intention of resolving or defusing the situation), avoidance (removing themselves from the threat), and self-defence.

Certainly, the first two options are preferred but there could be some circumstances where the latter may have to be given consideration.

Physical intervention and reasonable force

There may be occasions where actual physical assault situations are faced by employees. In these circumstances, employees may have to take action to defend themselves from an assailant, which may include using what is termed as “reasonable force”, for example, when using restraint techniques.

The policy on work-related violence and aggression should clearly state the organisation’s position on the use of physical interventions, these being “break-away techniques” (when defending oneself or another) or “restraint techniques” (when physically restricting a person’s movement).

The decision on whether to train employees in restraint techniques will have to be justified through the risk assessment process. If training is required, the tendency is for non-abusive or intrusive restraint training. This is a highly specialised area and requires specific training and a confirmation of competency to minimise injury or other harm to the person being restrained.

While the law allows people to exercise “reasonable force” to defend themselves, what actually constitutes reasonable is very much open to interpretation and is dependent on the particular circumstances of each situation.

Guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) notes that self-defence is governed by civil law and that a person “may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances for the purposes of self-defence”.

The decision as to whether an employee has used reasonable force when defending themselves would rest with prosecutors, based upon any police investigation into the incident.

It is worth noting that the CPS guidance notes that prosecutors must exercise special care when reviewing cases involving those, other than police officers, who may have a duty to preserve order and prevent crime.

It states that “the existence of duties that require people, during the course of their employment, to engage in confrontational situations from time to time needs to be considered, along with the usual principles of reasonable force”.

The CPS guidance also makes reference to the ability of an individual to retreat rather than to defend themselves. It notes that “failure to retreat when attacked and when it is possible and safe to do so, is not conclusive evidence that a person was not acting in self-defence”.

Staff may have to account for any use of force in the courts. They will need to know the legal authority for their actions and be able to explain why these were necessary, reasonable and proportionate in the circumstances. Staff training should therefore focus on the principle of using the least forceful intervention practicable in achieving the desired objective.

Further information

  • INDG 69: Violence at Work — A Guide for Employers, Health and Safety Executive, available at www.hse.gov.uk

  • Conflict Resolution Training: Implementing the Learning Aims and Outcomes, NHS Protect, available at www.nhsbsa.nhs.uk

  • National Occupational Standard: The Prevention and Management of Violence in the Workplace, Skills for Security, available at www.skillsforsecurity.org.uk

  • Self-Defence and the Prevention of Crime, Crown Prosecution Service, available at www.cps.gov.uk

Last reviewed 22 November 2016