Workplace violence

The alarming trend that had seen instances of abuse, threats and violence against shop workers rise rapidly over recent years has shown a substantial improvement. There is a reported fall of nearly 50%, according to the Retail Crime Survey for 2005-06.

With shop workers, NHS staff and security workers and police leading the field in the number of reported incidents of violence each year, the figures are a cause for cautious optimism, and indicate that employers are taking violence in the workplace seriously.

Have we really turned the corner on violence in the retail sector?

While the statistics look promising, Kevin Hawkins, director general of the British Retail Consortium, warned against complacency, and questioned whether the dramatic fall merely reflected shop workers’ reluctance to report incidents, instead accepting abuse, threats and violence as part of their day-to-day work.

Does legislation provide sufficient protection to staff?

There are no specific laws on workplace violence. Instead, staff are protected through both criminal law and civil regulations.

Employers are required to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment under regulation 3 of the Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1992. It is this risk assessment that drives the employer to review and implement change to reduce the risk of violence and abuse to their staff. The assessment may lead to the preparation of a specific health and safety policy identifying the issues, how they are to be controlled and, importantly, who will be responsible for their implementation.

Employers need to ask themselves: “When does violence occur in my organisation and why?” Having collated and evaluated data on violent incidents in the past, employers can then go about introducing the necessary changes.

Without doubt, the best risk-management tool is training. Whether in shops, hospitals or on public transport, staff need to be trained on how to communicate with people, deal with angry customers and what they should and should not do to prevent theft or deal with troublemakers. These three triggers are responsible for 70% of all incidents of violence at work, according to crime prevention statistics.

Other practical steps can include making changes to the job: anything from redesigning procedures, forms and questions to avoid customer/client frustration, to retailers reviewing their ‘returns’ policy. Environmental changes may be required, such as better illumination or a change in layout.

You may also consider introducing specific security measures. When doing so, be aware of the requirements of the Personal Protective Equipment Regulations 1992, and the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998. If, as a last resort, protective clothing is to be provided, such as stab vests and body armour, then the equipment must be suitable, and staff need to be trained on how to use it. Also bear this in mind when providing security equipment, personal and fixed alarms, screens, CCTV, and electronic doors.

Where can we go for guidance?

Your starting point is the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website ( It is a useful source of information and statistics to help employers evaluate the risk of violence in their organisation and why it occurs. The HSE also publishes specific guidance for certain sectors, such as retail, education and the health service. If you require further help to assess the risk of violence or the introduction of conflict management training, then conflict management organisations such as Maybo  can help.

Why should employers take workplace violence seriously?

The latest statistics published by the HSE reveal that workplace violence has reduced significantly since its peak in 1995, when 1.3 million incidents were reported. However, some sectors, including security, transport and health services, have reported significant increases during the past year.

The cost of violence is not just the personal cost to the employee who has sustained physical and psychological injury, but also the real cost to your organisation through the detrimental effect on morale, absence and disruption. The HSE and local environmental health officers take violence at work seriously. To date, successful prosecutions against employers are few, but there remains a distinct possibility that organisations will be prosecuted if they fail to take all reasonable steps to prevent violence and abuse to staff.

What’s in the pipeline?

Plans developed by the NHS Security Management Service will continue to impose fines of £1,000 with the power to remove individuals who are threatening or abusive to NHS staff. Similar penalties against individuals who threaten or are violent to emergency workers, including police, firefighters and coastguards, are also being considered.

By Noel Walsh, head of workplace casualty, Weightmans Solicitors

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