Weekly dilemma: Staff protection

I work in the HR department of a large UK retailer. We have a growing number of requests for protective equipment such as stab vests from front-line staff in high-risk areas of the country. But we are concerned that this would send a message of fear to our customers. Are we legally obligated to provide such equipment? What else, if anything, could we do instead to protect/reassure staff?

The provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as stab vests should be seen as the last resort. You must first take positive steps to reduce the risk of physical assault to a minimum if such a risk exists.

The starting point is identifying when, where and why violence occurs. This data can be secured from incident reports and feedback from staff. Armed with this information, you should introduce appropriate training to include how to communicate with customers and on the ‘do’s and don’ts’ of physical intervention. You should also carry out a review of security measures such as CCTV, provision for the handling of cash, adequacy of lighting, screens, store layout and staffing levels. It is only after these measures have been reviewed that PPE should be considered.

In stores where a particularly high risk of violence is identified, then PPE may be required for security staff, but this is likely to be the exception. Appropriate training and a clear message from you that violence and abuse will not be tolerated should provide your retail workers with the confidence to perform their jobs safely, and to be more confident to deal with a potential situation should it arise. It will also help to reduce any inaccurate perceptions of the risk of violence.

Self-provision of PPE can cause problems by raising anxiety for both staff and customers, and for employers regulating and monitoring its use. It should be discouraged.

By Noel Walsh, partner and head of workplace safety at Weightmans

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