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Commercial Question

Paying the Price

updated on 31 March 2009


Why is violence bad for business?


Violence and threatening behaviour is a serious issue for all employers. For customers or passengers it means a loss of confidence that can affect turnover. For staff it can lead to low morale, stress, anxiety and, in the worst cases, pain, disability and death. For employers it means operational difficulties due to injury and absenteeism, and a negative effect on recruitment.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines work-related violence as "any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to his/her work". This can include verbal abuse or threats as well as physical attacks. According to statistics from the HSE, 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. A Panorama documentary in April 2007 revealed that violence against NHS staff was costing the NHS in excess of £100 million a year, while the related physical injury and stress accounted for 30% of absenteeism within the NHS. As the country’s largest employer, these figures are a cause for concern.

Does legislation provide sufficient protection for staff?

New legislation has made violence towards health professionals punishable by a fine of up to £1,000. However, in other industries there are no specific laws on workplace violence. Instead staff members are protected by both criminal law and civil regulations.

Health and safety law applies to risks from violence in the same way it applies to other risks that derive from work. The main pieces of relevant legislation are the:

  • Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, under which employers have a legal duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees;
  • Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, which require employers to consider the risks to employees including the risk of reasonably foreseeable violence taking into account how significant these risks are and what they can do to prevent or control the risks. Employers must then develop a clear management plan to achieve this;
  • Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995, which require employers to notify their enforcing authority in the event of an accident at work involving an employee which results in death, major injury or incapacity for normal work for three or more days. This includes any act of physical violence against an employee; and
  • Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977(a) and the Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations 1996(b), which require employers to inform and consult with employees in good time on matters relating to their health and safety. Employee representatives make representations to their employer on matters affecting the health and safety of the workforce.

What can employers do to prevent violence against employees?

As required by legislation, employers must carry out suitable and sufficient risk assessments. They must ask themselves when could violence occur in their organisation and why? Having collated and reviewed the data on violent incidents, employers can introduce changes. These may include the following:

  • Training: This is the most effective method of reducing violence. Staff need to be trained on how to communicate with people, deal with angry customers or troublemakers, and prevent theft. According to crime prevention statistics, these three things are responsible for 70% of all incidents of violence in the workplace.
  • Changes to the job: This can include anything from implementing new procedures to redesigning forms and questions to avoid customer frustration. These types of change are often industry specific. For example, a retailer may wish to review their returns policy.
  • Environmental changes: This might include better illumination or a change in layout.
  • New security measures: This might include personal and fixed alarms, screens, CCTV and electronic doors. Employers should bear in mind that staff need to be trained on how to use these.

Why should employers take workplace violence seriously?

As if the impact on staff, customers and business was not enough, 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.

Staff are also more aware of their rights. Rather than pursue a claim against the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, employees are making civil claims against their employers claiming that they could have done more to protect them.

If steps are not taken, employers may find violence is very bad for business.

Victoria Curran is a newly qualified solicitor in Weightmans' workplace safety team.