How to protect your employees from abuse – 23 Nov 2006

Noel Walsh, partner, Weightmans SolicitorsThe 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 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 asked whether the fall merely reflected shop workers’ reluctance to report incidents, instead accepting abuse, threats and violence as part of their job.

Does legislation provide sufficient protection to staff?

There are no specific laws on workplace violence, staff are protected through criminal law and civil regulations.
Employers are required to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment under regulation three of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992. This risk assessment drives employers to review and implement change to reduce the risk of violence and abuse to their staff.

The assessment may lead to the creation of a 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 employers can  introduce changes.

Without doubt, the best risk-management tool is training. 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 things 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 implementing new procedures, redesigning forms and questions to avoid customer 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 security measures such as personal and fixed alarms, screens, CCTV, and electronic doors. Bear in mind staff need to be trained on how to use these.

Why should employers take workplace violence seriously?

The latest statistics published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reveal 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 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  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.


Where to go for guidance

Health and Safety Executive (HSE) websiteYour starting point is the Health and Safety Executive 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 anagement training, then conflict management organisations such as Maybo can help.

Further reading: download an executive summary of the British Retail Consortium’s Retail Crime Survey 2005/6

Noel Walsh is a partner at Weightmans Solicitors

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