Keeping the peace

Minimising staff exposure to violence in the workplace should be an OH
priority.  By Walter Brennan

A customer services manager had spent 12 years working for a large retailer.
One month while dealing with another irate customer, he was spat at, punched
and scratched in the face and had his hair pulled. "Just another
day," he said, adding, "I was told it was part of the job. It was
what I got paid for."

Such a common philosophy is still worryingly prevalent in many occupations,
but no employee should be employed as a punchbag.

The stress of being exposed to violence in the workplace will eventually
result in staff going off sick, or possibly leaving the firm and taking legal
action against the employer for failing to provide a safe working environment.
All these problems can damage an organisation’s commercial profile, making
staff recruitment and retention difficult. So it makes sense, from both a
health and safety and business perspective to address this problem.

What is violence?

The Health and Safety Commission1 defines violence as: "Any incident in
which a person working in the healthcare sector is verbally abused, threatened
or assaulted by a patient or member of the public in circumstances relating to
his or her employment". Another definition is, the use of force to damage
another, oneself or property.

Everyone feels angry or violent at some time in their lives. Psychologist
Glenys Breakwell2 uses the word "triggers" to describe factors that
provoke violence by individuals. Such triggers include being in pain or being
made to wait for something. Substances such as drugs and alcohol can increase
the risk of violence, as these reduce inhibitions.

Factors such as stress, fear and anxiety can all trigger violence, as can
serious mental health problems.

Violence can also be caused by frustration at not being able to carry out
one’s wishes due to the perceived obstruction of others. Frustration can be
described as the blocking of goal directed behaviour.

If organisations are inconsistent in their management practices this also
causes frustration. For example, where a shop may allow a cash refund on an
item one day despite no receipt, and change the policy the next day. If
employees are the ones who have to carry out ambiguous policies, they can
quickly begin to feel unsure, undermined and angry about the situation. For the
customers, they feel angry because the policy is changing and they don’t know
why. The resulting frustration can easily lead to violence.

Environmental signs

Features of the workplace that may antagonise or suggest an uncaring image.
Heating, lighting, noise, decor – a generally neglected environment can
contribute to an "us and them" atmosphere: "The organisation
does not care about us, the customers or clients, why should we care about
them." This was a common response from people in accident and emergency
departments and people who visited DSS offices.

Walter Brennan is an independent training consultant in conflict management


1 Violence and Aggression to staff in health services Guidance on Assessment
and Management HMSO (1997)

2 Breakwell G (1989) Facing Physical Violence. Leicester, British
Psychological Society and Routledge

3 Health and Safety Commission (1992) Management of Health and Safety at
Work. Approved Code of Practice. London. HMSO

4 Brennan W (1999) Risk Assessment, Dangerousness and Violence. Nursing
& Residential Care. Vol 1 No3 p159-163

Risk assessment

Under the 1992 Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations3,
organisations with five employees or more must carry out an assessment of the
risks to the health and safety of their staff. The HSE proposes a five-step
approach to risk assessment.

Step one
Look for hazards:

– Examine records of incidents, especially near misses, look for trends

– Evaluate aspects of the job that can prove to be more dangerous than

Step two
Who might be harmed?

– Identify staff who are vulnerable to violence. l It may those who are in
the front line and who have to deal with angry clients

Step three
Evaluate the risks

– Is security adequate?

– Are incidents reported and responded to? 
Is training in aggression management appropriate – if it exists at all?

– Does it aim to be proactive rather than reactive?

– Are support systems confidential, accessible and lead to a return to work?

Step four
Record your findings

– Once you have identified violence as a real hazard, is it recorded?

– Are potential aggressors, victims and high-risk areas also recorded

– Is there a plan of action designed to address the hazard?

– Are staffing levels designed to address the problem?

– Are environmental factors looked at?

Step five
Review and revise the assessment

The risk associated with violence constantly changes and can change from
minute to minute or from person to person. Good risk assessment informs
practice. The risk assessment needs to be regularly reviewed and amended

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