In the first of two features on the subject, Mark Plows of System Concepts discusses how organisations can manage the risk of violence and aggression at work. This feature outlines what violence and aggression can involve and what employers need to do to manage the risks, including the systems organisations can implement.

What is violence and aggression?

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines work-related violence as: “any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work”.

Violence and aggression can include a wide range of unacceptable behaviours, including:

  • physical violence, eg hitting, throwing objects at people, spitting or biting

  • verbal abuse or threats

  • damage to personal property.

Acts of violence or aggression can range from minor cases such as disrespect, to more serious acts including criminal offences, which may require the involvement of the police.

Incidents of work-related violence can occur internally (eg between colleagues and superiors) or involve third parties, such as clients, the public, patients, pupils, etc. The people most at risk are those who have to deal with the public.

What is the problem?

Work-related violence is costly in both human and financial terms. There are the direct costs associated with absence, replacing staff and lower productivity. There are also indirect costs, such as investigating and resolving workplace incidents, and the knock-on effects on staff turnover, morale and motivation.

Victims of violence and aggression often suffer immediate effects of pain or distress, and there may also bea long-term impact on their health and psychological well-being, eg stress and loss of confidence. It may also affect their home life.

The financial costs associated with work-related violence are difficult to calculate, but the National Audit Office estimated the cost of violence and aggression towards frontline NHS hospital staff as £69 million a year in terms of staff absence, loss of productivity and additional security.

Taking the right steps to tackle work-related violence can make organisations safer and more efficient.

What does the law require employers to do?

Employers have legal duties to protect their employees from violence and aggression.

The Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974 requires employers to protect, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of their employees and non-employees (eg clients, customers, contractors, patients).

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to assess and control all the risks associated with their work activities. Employers need to develop and implement a clear management policy and plan to achieve this.

Under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR), employers must report any acts of work-related violence that fall under the definition of notifiable accidents, including fatalities, serious injuries and incidents where the victim is unable to work normally for more than seven days.

Employers must also consult their employees and safety representatives about health and safety risks and the control measures they implement.

What does your management system need to include?

The risks from violence and aggression should be managed in the same way as other health and safety risks. The key aspects of a successful management system are to identify the risks and put in place measures to prevent or control those risks. A simple, four-stage management approach is set out below.

Stage one: find out if you have a problem

The best method for identifying any risk is to ask your employees. You could do this informally or use a short questionnaire. Keeping detailed records will help you build up a picture of the problems you may have, although you may have to encourage employees to report incidents promptly. Classifying the incidents by place, time, type, those involved and causes will help identify any potential problem areas or themes.

Also try to consider what might happen, by finding out more about the risk of violence in similar organisations or through trade organisations.

Stage two: decide what action to take

If there is a potential for violence or aggression, then you need to assess the risks and decide how to control them.

There are always a number of possible solutions to help manage the risks in your organisation. These do not need to involve advanced technology or be costly to implement.

Some practical solutions to consider are:

  • training and information for staff, eg explaining your policy on work-related violence, training on how to recognise volatile situations

  • improving the layout of your premises, eg making sure there is clear visibility or improved lighting in reception and car park areas

  • planning job roles carefully, eg avoiding lone working.

Stage three: take action

Implement the control measures necessary to manage the risks. Check with employees that the changes are being followed.

Stage four: check that what you have done is working

You need to regularly check that your control measures are working effectively and the risks are being managed. In smaller companies, these checks can be informal but managers and supervisors should involve employees and use their experience.

Violence and aggression policy and procedures

Managing violence and aggression can be incorporated into existing systems without creating a mountain of extra work. Depending on the structure of your management system, you could incorporate work-related violence into an existing policy, or develop a specific work-related violence policy.

If your organisation employs five or more people, then your policies and risk assessments must be recorded. Implementing a written policy for violence at work can be beneficial to any size of organisation, because it:

  • demonstrates a commitment to tackle work-related violence

  • clarifies responsibilities

  • raises awareness of related issues amongst the workforce

  • sets standards for acceptable workplace behaviour

  • ensures consistency and fairness in how incidents are managed.

Giving a senior manager overall responsibility and control of the policy shows that work-related violence is taken seriously. Senior management need to provide strong, active and visible support and commitment to the policy, to ensure that it is carried through effectively.

In small organisations, policies may be more informal, but employees should still be aware of what behaviour is considered unacceptable and what they should do if they encounter these behaviours.

Your written policy should be backed up with specific procedures or processes for tackling work-related violence. When reviewing your management system, consider whether the following things are all in place:

  • detailed and well-communicated emergency procedures

  • risk assessments covering work-related violence

  • procedures for reporting and investigating incidents of violence and aggression

  • clear responsibilities for RIDDOR reporting

  • good communications with employees about workplace risks

  • adequate involvement of safety representatives and employees

  • employee assistance programmes (eg counselling, special leave, advice on legal action)

  • drug and alcohol procedures

  • complaint and disciplinary procedures.

If your employees handle cash or products, you may need a “do not fight” policy. If there is an attempted theft, with a threat of real or perceived violence, the safest course of action is not to offer any resistance and to comply with the aggressor’s demands.

Having effective communication processes can have many benefits when tackling work-related violence. Some of these benefits include:

  • promoting acceptable behaviour (eg to patients, pupils, customers, clients)

  • building client confidence in your service, brand or product

  • encouraging positive involvement from suppliers, contractors and other third parties.

Conclusions

Violence and aggression at work is a serious problem that affects many people. Tackling it does not need to be very different from how we manage other risks.

The key point with any management system is to talk with and involve employees. They will be able to identify circumstances where these risks could develop.

In the second feature in this series, we will discuss some practical control measures and how the work environment can be designed to avoid or minimise the risks from violence and aggression.

Last reviewed 5 March 2014