People who deal directly with the public may face aggressive or violent behaviour. They may be sworn at, threatened or even attacked.
This toolbox talk gives practical advice to help you find out if violence is a problem for your employees, and if it is, how to tackle it. The advice is aimed at employers, but should also interest employees and safety representatives.

Violence is …

The Health and Safety Executive’s definition of work-related violence is:

‘any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work’.

Verbal abuse and threats are the most common types of incident. Physical attacks are comparatively rare.

Who is at risk?

Employees whose job requires them to deal with the public can be at risk from violence. Most at risk are those who are engaged in:

  • giving a service
  • caring
  • education
  • cash transactions
  • delivery/collection
  • controlling
  • representing authority
Is it my concern?

Both employer and employees have an interest in reducing violence at work. For employers, violence can lead to poor morale and a poor image for the organisation, making it difficult to recruit and keep staff. It can also mean extra cost, with absenteeism, higher insurance premiums and compensation payments. For employees, violence can cause pain, distress and even disability or death. Physical attacks are obviously dangerous but serious or persistent verbal abuse or threats can also damage employees’ health through anxiety or stress.

What the law requires

There are five main pieces of health and safety law which are relevant to violence at work. These are:

Effective management of violence

A straightforward management strategy is needed to combat workplace violence. By completing a risk assessment an employer can understand where and how violence is likely to occur, allowing them to provide the necessary training and resources to staff. The 3 step process below shows how to build an effective risk assessment.

Stage 1: Finding out if you have a problem

The first step in risk assessment is to identify the hazard. You may think violence is not a problem at your workplace or that incidents are rare. However, your employees’ view may be very different.

  • Ask your staff – do this informally through managers, supervisors and safety representatives or use a short questionnaire to find out whether your employees ever feel threatened. Tell them the results of your survey so they realise that you recognise the problem.
  • Keep detailed records – it is a good idea to record incidents, including verbal abuse and threats.
  • Classify all incidents – use headings such as place, time, type of incident, potential severity, who was involved and possible causes.

You can use the details from your incident records along with the classifications to check for patterns. Look for common causes, areas or times. The steps you take can then be targeted where they are needed most.

Stage 2: Deciding what action to take

Having found out that violence could be a problem for your employees you need to decide what needs to be done. Continue the risk assessment by taking the following steps to help you decide what action you need to take.

  • Identify which employees are at risk – those who have face-to-face contact with the public are normally the most vulnerable. Where appropriate, identify potentially violent people in advance so that the risks from them can be minimised.
  • Check existing arrangements, are the precautions already in place adequate or should more be done? Remember it is usually a combination of factors that give rise to violence. Factors which you can influence include: the level of training and information provided, the environment, the design of the job.
    Consider the way these factors work together to influence the risk of violence.
  • Regularly check that your assessment is a true reflection of your current work situation. Be prepared to add further measures or change existing measures where these are not working. This is particularly important where the job changes. If a violent incident occurs, look back at your assessment, evaluate it and make any necessary changes.
Stage 3: Take action

Your policy for dealing with violence may be written into your health and safety policy statement, so that all employees are aware of it. This will help your employees to co-operate with you, follow procedures properly and report any further incidents.

Examples of preventative measures that employers can take:

Training and information: Train your employees so that they can spot the early signs of aggression and either avoid it or cope with it. Make sure they fully understand any system you have set up for their protection.
Provide employees with any information they might need to identify clients with a history of violence or to anticipate factors which might make violence more likely.

The environment: Provide better seating, decor, lighting in public waiting rooms and more regular information about delays.
Consider physical security measures such as:

  • Video cameras or alarm systems,
  • Coded security locks on doors to keep the public out of staff areas,
  • Wider counters and raised floors on the staff side of the counter to give staff more protection.

The design of the job: It is possible to tailor the job to make violence less likely, below are some examples of how this can be achieved:

  • Use cheques, credit cards or tokens instead of cash to make robbery less attractive.
  • Bank money more frequently and vary the route taken to reduce the risk of robbery.
  • Check the credentials of clients and the place and arrangements for any meetings away from the workplace.
  • Arrange for staff to be accompanied by a colleague if they have to meet a suspected aggressor at their home or at a remote location.
  • Make arrangements for employees who work away from their base to keep in touch.
  • Maintain numbers of staff at the workplace to avoid a lone worker situation developing.
What about the victims?

If there is a violent incident involving your workforce you will need to respond quickly to avoid any long-term distress to employees. It is essential to plan how you are going to provide them with support, before any incidents. You may want to consider the following:

  • debriefing – victims will need to talk through their experience as soon as possible after the event. Remember that verbal abuse can be just as upsetting as a physical attack
  • time off work – individuals will react differently and may need differing amounts of time to recover. In some circumstances they might need specialist counselling
  • legal help – in serious cases legal help may be appropriate
  • other employees – may need guidance and/or training to help them to react appropriately.

Sources: HSE

Other Resources

Read more information from the HSE Website.

Download the HSE’s Violence Prevention Toolkit.


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