Before being able to address responsibilities, it’s important to understand what’s defined as workplace violence. The exact definition may vary by country, but in the UK, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines violence at work as:

“any incident in which an employee is abused, threatened or assaulted by a member of the public in the course of their employment.”

This includes any form or verbal abuse, threat or physical abuse or assault. It can affect and involve employees, clients, customers and visitors.

With violence in the workplace receiving increased attention, it is a major concern for employers. Incidents of violence, or claims thereof, carry serious implications for any employer including:

  • Employees being injured and taking time off work as a result
  • A devastating effect on morale of all employees
  • Potential health and safety issues
  • Civil claims and employment tribunals.

Whenever violence occurs in a workplace, accusations are inevitably lodged against the employers for failing to prevent harm. In the UK, the law supports the employee when it comes to ensuring their safety at work. It is therefore in the interests of every employer to take steps to address the issues.

However, laws are often unclear with practical solutions remaining in short supply. So, where does that leave both employers?

Who is most at risk from workplace violence?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the US outlines a number of factors when it comes to identifying those most as risk from workplace violence. These include:

  • Locations where there is an exchange of money with the public
  • Those working alone or in small groups
  • Those working very late/early
  • Those working in high crime areas
  • Anyone having contact with the public
  • Places where alcohol is served.

There are also some industries which are particularly at risk from workplace violence including health care, social services, night retail and law enforcement.

However, it’s important to note that no industry is exempt from the risks, so all employers need to take their responsibilities very seriously.

What are employers required to do?

All employers have a duty of care to ensure employees are safe while they work. Protecting employees from workplace violence falls well within this. However, the exact responsibilities and liabilities will vary by country. We’ll take a quick look at the USA and the UK.

Employers in the UK

In the UK, employers have a clear legal obligation to prevent threats and violence towards employees – the same as any other risk at work. It is your duty as an employer to assess potential threats and address them in your health and safety policies and procedures.

The Health and Safety Executive has issued joint European guidance on Preventing Workplace Harassment and Violence. It outlines a number of employer responsibilities such as:

  • Providing a clear statement that harassment and violence will not be tolerated
  • Providing information on how to report harassment and violence
  • Spelling out what constitutes unacceptable behaviour
  • Advise workers on the laws that apply to them at work
  • Explaining what support is available to the victim(s)
  • Explaining how the policy will be implemented, reviewed and monitored.

There are five pieces of health and safety legislation that relate to violence at work:

  • The Health and Safety at Work Act (HASAWA, 1974) – states that employers have a duty of care to employees because violence is a foreseeable risk
  • The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999) – states employers must consider the risk of foreseeable violence, decide how significant they are and determine how best to prevent or control these risks
  • The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR, 2013) – states employers must report any injury, incapacity or death as a result of workplace violence to the authorities
  • The Safety Representative and Safety Committees Regulations (1977).
  • The Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations (1996).

Employers in the US

In the US, workers are partly protected by the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act which requires employers to provide a safe and healthful workplace for all employees.

There is no official OSHA standard for workplace violence, but there is voluntary guidance which is designed to assist employers with identifying risks and putting in place steps to prevent workplace violence. The guidelines help employers identify risks of workplace violence (focusing on health care, social services and night retail), outlines risk factors, and suggests approaches to dealing with the problem.

If an employer does not follow these guidelines, it does not make them automatically responsible if there is an attack. In fact, employers have used these guidelines to explain why a violent incident was not foreseeable.

What can employers do to reduce workplace violence?

Regardless of any legal obligation for employers, it’s in everyone’s interest to reduce workplace violence. So, what can employers actually do to address the issue?

A clear statement to staff and visitors that you will not tolerate violence or verbal abuse is a good place to start.

For higher risk jobs, implementing a violence prevention programme is good practice. This can fall under your main health and safety policy, employee handbook or standard operating procedures. The OSHA guidelines outlines four main elements to include:

  • Management commitment and employee involvement – allocation of responsibility, employee suggestion/complaint procedure, training and education
  • Worksite analysis – identify potential hazards and establishment of threat assessment team
  • Hazard prevention and control – engineering/admin practices to prevent threats
  • Safety and health training – equipping employees with ways of recognising, preventing and diffusing volatile situations.

Few employers, indeed few experts, are able to predict accurately whether a hot-headed employee may resort to violence, but having a process and, most importantly, staff training in place can help reduce the risk.

During your worksite analysis and hazard prevention work, you may spot an opportunity where a panic alarm system could help, giving staff the ability to silently call for help if they feel threatened. Sometimes back up is all that’s needed to diffuse a situation. Why not give our talented team a call to find out how Little Green Button could help?