Last reviewed 6 June 2017
Many people are exposed to the threat of violence while they are at work. Some are attacked and injured, many are threatened, a few are even killed. Andrew Christodoulou considers the problem of violence in the workplace and what can be done to prevent it and deal with it.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines workplace violence as “any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work”.
Violence described in these terms includes both verbal abuse and physical threats or acts. The outcomes can include physical injury and also the psychological effects of exposure to threatening situations. There are many work situations and activities where the risk of violence is a real one and such risk can cause poor morale and stress.
According to the HSE’s Violence at Work: Findings from the 2010/11 British Crime Survey (BCS), available from www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/, in 2010/11 there were:
313,000 threats of violence
341,000 physical assaults
6078 reportable injuries to employees caused by violence at work.
Significantly, 43% of all victims were repeat victims.
Who is at risk?
According to the HSE, age and gender distributions of RIDDOR-reportable violent incidents show that, for men, the age group with the highest rate of injury (per 100,000 employees) is 25–34. For women, the highest rate occurs in the 35–44 and 45–54 age groups.
In terms of occupations and industry, the occupations most at risk are those in the protective services, eg police officers and those working in the healthcare sector.
In these cases the BCS estimates that in 33% of the assaults the offender was under the influence of alcohol, while an estimated 30% of threats were made by someone under the influence of alcohol. In 25% of assaults at work, the offender was under the influence of drugs. For threats this figure was 19%.
The relationship between the offender and the victim was also investigated in the BCS. An estimated 66% of assaults on workers were perpetrated by a stranger, with the next highest group being clients or members of the public known through work. Fifty-nine per cent of threats were made by strangers, with 22% by clients or members of the public known through work.
These statistics give an insight into those occupations where the risk of violence at work is likely to be significant, and it predominantly, if unsurprisingly, includes those who have to deal with the public in some way.
The occupations/professions most at risk, in more detail, include:
protective services, eg the police and prison service
health and social welfare professionals
teaching and research professionals
transport workers, eg buses and taxis
sales and customer service occupations
cash handling occupations.
The nature of the physical injuries sustained vary, but most range from bruising or black eyes to scratches and cuts. Assaults or the threat of assault can, however, cause psychological effects such as stress, anxiety and fear.
Violence in workplace also includes harassment in the workplace from colleagues or manager. In such cases reference to human resources procedures and employment law may be necessary.
What does the law require?
While there are no specific regulations on violence at work, there are a range of general health and safety legal requirements that apply to the protection of staff from acts of violence.
In particular, the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974 requires employers to ensure the health and safety of their employees and others and this extends to protection from acts of violence.
A number of parts of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 also apply. Notably, regulation 3 requires employers to perform risk assessments for their work activities and, again, this extends to potential acts of violence. Regulation 5 requires health and safety arrangements to be in place to ensure effective management of health and safety.
The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995 (RIDDOR) require employers to notify their enforcing authority in the event of an accident at work to an employee resulting in death, major injury or absence from work for seven or more consecutive days. This includes any act of non-consensual physical violence suffered at work.
The Common Law “duty of care” applies as well and can give rise to civil claims in the event of death or injury from acts of violence, resulting in expense for employers. For example in Houghton v Hackney Borough Council (1967) a rent collector was attacked while collecting rents on a housing estate. His civil claim for negligence failed because his employer had taken precautionary steps to protect him, including arranging for a porter to be around during the collection and inviting the police to be on watch. They also arranged for a car to take the claimant to the bank to deposit the money collected. The message is clear that employers have to be proactive on the prevention of violence to defend potential claims against them.
The management of violence at work
The effective management of violence at work is no different to dealing with other workplace risks and starts with a risk assessment to identify whether acts of violence are a significant issue. This will involve assessing the likelihood of an act of violence and the level of injury that is likely to be incurred.
As with any risk assessment, control measures to mitigate and minimise the risk of acts of violence need to be implemented. The working environment can be changed, systems of work introduced and monitored, and security measures and training implemented.
Precautionary measures may include:
training staff on how to spot early signs of aggression and how to avoid them
training staff on how to deal with potentially dangerous situations
alarm systems, including personal alarms
physical barriers, eg screens
lone working policies and systems
assessment of clients and customers
improved environment, eg lighting
avoidance of large cash sums; using credit cards
maintaining appropriate staffing levels.
It is also important to provide for those who are victims of acts of violence. This may involve counselling and rehabilitation programmes.
Going to work and being afraid because of the threat of violence is unacceptable. Workers at risk need to know how to deal with escalating aggression and be reassured that measures are in place to properly protect them.
Further information can be found on the HSE website at www.hse.gov.uk.