Getting to the root of violence at work

In the past 12 months, many sectors have reported an increase in the number of reported incidents of abuse and assaults against staff. This includes a sharp increase in violence against NHS staff, as well as those involved in retail, transport and security.

Zero tolerance

In recent weeks, proposed new legislation aimed at tackling violence against NHS and emergency services staff has hit the headlines. New plans developed by the NHS Security Management Services propose a £1,000 fine, together with the power to remove individuals who are threatening or abusive to NHS staff.

In addition, the private members Emergency Services (Obstruction) Bill looks to introduce a specific offence – together with fines of up to £5,000 – against those who are violent or obstructive towards the emergency services, including the police, fire, ambulance and coastguards.

These proposed changes supplement the ‘zero tolerance’ campaigns run by the NHS and others against abuse and violence.

But while these proposals are welcome, they do not, of themselves, tackle the underlying causes of violence. Their effectiveness as a deterrent depends upon a willingness to use the additional powers provided, prosecute culprits and publicise success with the clear message that violence and abuse will not be tolerated.

The health service has taken the lead with a 15-fold increase in the number of prosecutions. However, the power to remove is not without difficulty, leaving NHS staff exposed to making a clinical judgment as to whether or not the aggressive patient has a condition that requires urgent treatment.

Arguably, the present legislation provides sufficient powers to arrest and prosecute for breach of the peace, assault or racial abuse. However, any additional powers for the protection of NHS and emergency staff must be welcomed.

Delivering the message

Those sectors aside, violence and abuse remains a significant issue for all employers. The National Board of Crime Prevention Statistics reveals that 70% of physical attacks on workers arise as a consequence of attempting to prevent theft, facing an angry customer or simply dealing with a troublemaker.

Prosecutions, whether under proposed new or existing laws, are only one of the weapons in the employer’s armoury against an individual. Others include helping your local authority or police in securing orders to restrict individuals from entering certain places or carrying out anti-social acts, to include ASBOs (anti-social behaviour orders), restrictions or curfew orders.

You could also consider a civil action against a perpetrator to recover losses – such as wages when a member of staff has been off work due to injuries sustained through violence.

The message that violence and abuse will not be tolerated needs to be delivered. It must start internally as part of the organisation’s policy that violence will be taken seriously, staff will be protected and all incidents must be reported. The organisation must demonstrate its commitment through both the provision of resources and making the necessary changes to reduce the risk.

If successful then shout about it, internally and externally. Local and national press are very successful in highlighting campaigns and successful prosecutions that name and shame.


What should employers do?



  • Carry out a specific risk assessment to identify where, when and why violence and abuse occurs. It is important to secure and track data identifying the number and nature of violent incidents and properly analyse the results. This will provide you with a platform to review and, where necessary, introduce changes to training, methods of work, environmental issues and security provisions.

  • Consider the message you send out either individually, as a member of a trade organisation or in conjunction with trade unions, local police or business crime partnerships. An example is retail union Usdaw’s ‘Freedom from Fear’ campaign for retail workers.

New powers proposed to tackle violence against NHS staff

Bill to protect emerbency service staff to get third reading

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