Last reviewed 24 June 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has introduced a new type of workplace violence where someone claiming to be infected with the virus deliberately coughs or spits directly into the face of an individual. Mike Sopp advises on how to mitigate this risk.

The latest official statistics on violence at work for 2017/18 indicate that 374,000 adults of working age in employment experienced violence at work, including threats and physical assault.

There are many working environments where employees can be exposed to workplace violence and aggression. This includes employees undertaking enforcement activities (eg parking enforcement) as well as employees working in public access buildings.

Health and Safety Executive guidance requires employers to determine if they “have a problem” with violence and aggression and then assess the risks associated with violence and aggression. This must be reviewed in the event of significant change.

The coronavirus pandemic has introduced a new hazard, which we will call “Covid-19 violence”, where an “adversary” claiming to be infected with the virus deliberately coughs or spits directly into the face of another individual.

With the move out of lockdown to a new normal business environment (ie with Covid-19 secure control measures) employers will need to determine if there is a foreseeable hazard from this type of Covid-19 violence and, if so, what risk control measures will be required.

Assessing the risk

The first question is to ask whether there is a foreseeable hazard from Covid-19 violence and aggression that constitutes a significant change to the previous working environment.

At present there is limited statistical evidence to suggest that Covid-related violence and aggression is widespread, most probably due to many work activities being reduced and workplaces being closed.

There has been some media coverage of certain cases and there have been some prosecutions, particularly where “blue light” employees have been involved, most particularly police officers. There has been a 14% increase in “spitting attacks” on police.

In addition, there have been a number of assaults on health care employees and transport workers.

Employers should already be addressing the risks of violence and aggression towards employees and putting in place risk control measures that reduce the risk to as low as reasonably practicable.

These control measures should be aimed at both preventing or reducing the potential for violence and aggression (eg by managing the “triggers” for anger) and mitigating the impacts of violence and aggression should it materialise.

It seems prudent for employers to at least review their current risk management practices in relation to violence and aggression and keep them under review as the UK moves back into a new normal business environment.

In respect of Covid 19 violence, there are two aspects to consider.

  1. Whether Covid-19 violence can occur due to current triggers being activated and the adversary coughing or spitting.

  2. Whether Covid-19 violence can occur due to changes in the triggers being activated, eg as a result of the introduction of Covid 19 secure guidelines.

As already noted, there is limited evidence in relation to the former in terms of actual incidents and the outcomes of those incidents (ie the potential for transmission of the virus from the adversary to the victim).

In respect of the latter, it is recommended that organisations review current triggers and determine if Covid-19 is likely to impact on these and the existing control measures in place to prevent, reduce or mitigate the risk.

The triggers that can result in violence and aggression are varied but typical examples include:

  • inability to access services (eg unsure of location and opening times)

  • pre-perception of service that will be provided (eg service will be busy)

  • lack of information on services needed

  • perception of unacceptable waiting times before and during service

  • staff members being unhelpful, inefficient, lacking knowledge, poor attitude, etc

  • inhospitable environment and clashes with other service users

  • unwanted outcomes having accessed services.

The introduction of Covid-19 secure guidelines has the potential to change the profile of these triggers, for example by:

  • changes to service provision in terms of opening times, locations, etc

  • changes to services that may be available

  • limited knowledge of changes to service provision

  • increased rules and stricter procedures during the pandemic (eg social distancing)

  • increased waiting times due to limited service providers being allowed in premises at any one time

  • perceived breaking of rules by other service users

  • employees not being aware of changes to the service provision.

Additional control measures

It is therefore prudent to review the changes that Covid-19 secure guidelines may require and what additional measures may be needed to reduce the risks where practicable. These could include:

  • encouraging service users to utilise alternative methods to gain access to services

  • providing information to service users on new working practices (eg new opening times, Covid-19 distancing rules, etc)

  • strict enforcement of social distancing rules through markings, signs and notices

  • use of physical barriers (eg perspex screens) to protect employees from coughing and spitting

  • reducing “floor-walking” by employees

  • ensuring employees are efficient in new working practices.

Many of these measures may already be in hand as general protection from direct transmission risks in terms of the virus and as such will not entail extensive additional costs.