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Tackling violence and aggression against front-line staff

Date posted
29 November 2023
Marcus Boocock
Estimated reading time
3 minute read

A well-known supermarket chain recently announced it was rolling out the use of body-worn cameras to staff in an attempt to curb violence towards them. IOSH’s OSH Content Developers Eloise Byrne and Laura Wilding look at the issue and explore other ways of managing the risks.

“Recently I was punched in the face.”

“I have been abused many times.”

“I was dragged through the car park by a vehicle and repeatedly punched.”

These are not quotes from prison officers or those working in extreme environments. These are quotes from retail workers and healthcare workers; workers whose jobs require them to work with the public. In fact, working with the public can be identified as the biggest risk factor for work-related violence.

A daily problem

The British Retail Consortium reported that violence and abuse against staff doubled from 450 incidents per day in 2019-20, to more than 850 in 2021-22.

Work-related aggression and violence cause significant harm to another person who wishes to avoid it. Such acts are intended to cause permanent physical or mental harm to another person.

Workplace violence and aggression creates a real risk to the occupational safety, health, and wellbeing of those affected. As well as any injuries inflicted, some of which can be severe, workers may experience anxiety about returning to work following an incident, which can lead to increased absenteeism, unsafe behaviours, loss of confidence and work-related stress.

Incidents affecting one individual can also have a significant negative effect on the health and wellbeing of those around them. So, this issue not only heavily impacts on individuals but also the wider business or service. High attrition rates of employees, sickness absence and long-term rehabilitation can have a significant financial impact.

Further to this, business reputations can be damaged beyond repair where there is evidence – or perception – of violence and aggression towards staff and customers.

A real-life issue

Richard Walker, the executive chairperson of Iceland Foods, has spoken out about the violent attacks across the high street. He said: “Every week I receive an average of 12 reports of ‘serious incidents’ where employees have been attacked in our stores, colleagues are being slapped, punched, and threatened with a range of weapons including hammers, firearms, and hypodermic needles.”

As well as the British Retail Consortium figures quoted earlier, a comparable situation can be seen across the UK’s healthcare industry. This issue has been long recognised by the UK government, with a strategy to tackle violence against healthcare staff announced in 2018 after the figures reached a five-year high – with one in seven health professionals attacked in their work in 2017–18. However, five years later, the problem persists with 15 per cent of NHS staff affected, according to the most recent national survey of the healthcare workforce.

How risks can be managed

Assessment and management of this risk is 100 per cent an occupational safety and health issue.

For a risk to be managed, it first needs to be identified. Staff surveys and regular reviews of incident reports are two effective ways of understanding the magnitude and severity of the risk of violence.

From this point, control measures can be taken. Organisational controls can include:

a demonstrably enforced zero-tolerance policy

  • cash free systems
  • risk assessment of patients/service users
  • prohibition of lone working (and safety checks when it is necessary)
  • ensuring the prosecution and rehabilitation of offenders who commit criminal assaults.

In addition to this, physical controls can include:

  • improving patient waiting areas and times in a healthcare setting, with the intention of stopping the build-up of tension
  • designing spaces so there is a physical barrier between the employee and customer or service user
  • installing panic buttons and using cameras and security guards as a deterrent.

Of course, these solutions only scratch the surface of what appears to be a deeply entrenched issue that many face every day as a part of their work.

Workplace aggression and violence should never be accepted as a ‘part of the job’. It is crucial we all come together to tackle this problem.

Last updated: 31 January 2024

Marcus Boocock

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PR Lead

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