Violence in the workplace guide

What is workplace violence?

Violence and aggression include: verbal and emotional abuse or threats; and physical attack to an individual or to property by another individual or group. The impact of violence on a victim depends on the severity of the violence, his or her own experiences, skills and personality.

Violent acts include:

  • Verbal abuse, in person or over the telephone
  • Written abuse
  • Harassment
  • Threats
  • Ganging up, bullying and intimidation
  • Physical or sexual assault
  • Armed robbery
  • Malicious damage to the property of staff, customers or the business

Workplace violence may not always be a critical or extreme situation from the outset. It sometimes follows a pattern of escalating behaviour - from agitation, expressed anger or frustration and intimidating body language, to verbal/written abuse and threats, physical threats, or assault.

How to use this information

What is this booklet about?

This booklet provides information to assist you to identify, assess and control the risk of violence in your workplace. If you follow the advice set out here, you will be well on the way to complying with responsibilities for providing a workplace that is safe from all types of violence, as required by occupational health and safety laws. This guidance is not a substitute for your legal obligations and you should make yourself aware of the laws that apply.

Who is this booklet for?

This booklet is for employers, managers, health and safety representatives, contractors and employees interested in or with a responsibility for, preventing and minimising the impact of violence and aggression at the workplace.

When to use this information

Whether you are setting up a new business or operating an existing business, this booklet is a step-by-step guide to understanding the issue of workplace violence . It will enable you to assess violence risks and develop practical prevention, critical incident and post-incident measures to avoid and minimise the effects of violence on your workers and customers.

The main focus of this guide is to help employers, in consultation with employees, prevent, manage and recover from aggressive and violent incidents.

Understanding workplace violence

Violence can be either internal to the organisation or from external sources.

Internal violence

Employees can be at risk of violence from co-workers, supervisors, managers or other staff. Common types of violence include harassment, bullying, peer pressure and verbal or physical abuse. Violence can also come from former employees seeking revenge on the business, its manager or other staff.

Violence from external sources

This may be of two types:

  • Material gain: where offenders are motivated to seek money, drugs or valuable goods
  • Non-material gain: this can include sexual assault, hostage taking and incidental violence to other people in the area immediately near the workplace

Client-initiated violence

This is where clients or customers of a service, their relatives or friends take violent or aggressive action against the workers who are trying to help them. Teachers, enforcement officers and health and welfare workers, for example, are at risk of this source of violence. When these clients commit violent acts it is usually not a unique occurrence; they often have a history of violent behaviour or related problems.

Discrimination and harassment

In some cases, unwelcome behaviour takes the form of discrimination or verbal and sexual harassment, be it by other staff, clients, customers or the general public. Whilst these sorts of behaviour are clearly inappropriate and stressful, they are not always accompanied by aggression or violence.

Non-violent discrimination or harassment should be dealt with at an early stage, preventing them from becoming more serious and possibly leading to violent behaviour. There are laws in place to protect workers against discrimination and harassment . See the section “Further Information” in this booklet for some useful references.

Bullying

“Workplace bullying” is aggressive behaviour that intimidates, humiliates and/or undermines a person or group. Bullying can be defined as the repeated less- favourable treatment of a person by another or others in the workplace, which is considered unreasonable and inappropriate workplace practice. Examples of bullying at work may include: yelling; screaming; abusive language; continually criticising someone; isolating or ignoring a worker; sabotaging someone’s work or their ability to do their job by not providing them with vital information, appropriate training and/or resources . Bullying results from one person or a group needing to dominate or show superiority over another person.

Sources of workplace violence

Any one or a combination of the following situations could result in workplace violence.

The need for personal gain or gratification

Offenders may try to take money, drugs or valuable goods from the business or employees. Attacks may be random but are often planned . The offenders know your business has something they want. They will strike where security and violence control measures are not adequate. Offenders may not be rational at the time of the offence or may be under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.

Some offenders are motivated by non-material gain. Sexual assault is an example. Sex offenders may stalk victims, planning their attack or may choose victims at random in opportune circumstances. Working alone, leaving work at night and travelling home alone can be high risks.

Extreme cases of workers being overloaded and driven excessively or inappropriately to perform by their supervisors can also result in workplace violence.

Service delivery issues

When people commit violent acts it is usually not a unique occurrence; they often have a history of violent behaviour.

Clients may be unhappy about any one or more aspects of your business including cost, performance of the product or service, treatment by staff, repeated delays and inconvenience. These things do not excuse violence, but should be recognised as possible contributing factors to an offender’s actions.

Clients or customers of a service, their relatives or friends may take violent or aggressive action against the workers who are trying to help them.

In some cases, the incident can come about during a single contact with the service, such as a relative of a seriously injured person trying to have them attended to at a doctor's surgery or hospital. In most cases, however, violence comes about only after a number of smaller conflicts, over some time.

Opportunism and coincidence

Violent acts may be committed for their own sake, often with little or no planning. Random vandalism is one example.

Some “smash and grab” and shoplifting offences are random; a spur of the moment thing brought about by opportunity such as no staff in the shop or valuables being left in an accessible position.

Other, less common aggressive behaviour includes sieges and hostage taking.

Clients affected by drugs, alcohol, under the influence of mind-altering substances or the absence of a substance (withdrawal syndrome) may become violent.

It is possible to have strategies to prevent these incidents, as well as having procedures to handle such violent situations should they occur.

Incidental violence such as robbery or assault of other people in the area immediately near the workplace can have an impact on your staff. Whilst they may not be physically assaulted they may suffer trauma from seeing the incident. You may not be able to prevent these situations but you can have procedures in place to minimise their impact.

Industries and occupations commonly affected

Workplace violence can occur in any industry or occupation. However, if your business is in one of the following industries or its workers fall into one of the occupational categories, there may be a higher risk of workplace violence occurring.

Health and Community Services

Doctors, nurses, ambulance officers, cashiers, welfare workers, ward helpers, accommodation service workers.

Government Administration and Education

Police, prison and other government enforcement officers, school teachers, probation officers, collection agency workers.

Business ServicesParticularly the finance sector . Counter staff, managers.
Transport and StorageGuards, bus drivers, taxi drivers, couriers, airline staff.
Retail TradeAll sales & support staff.
Consumer ServicesHospitality staff, managers, administration & other occupations.

How to establish the special needs of your workplace

No two workplaces are exactly the same. A combination of many factors will determine the need for protecting against violence towards staff and the physical property of your business. When selecting premises consider the risk of violence or aggression during the selection process.

In looking at these factors you must consult with the people most likely to be affected such as employees and contractors. The consultation process will provide a forum to reveal particular risks at the workplace and give employees the opportunity to contribute to violence prevention.

To work out how to prevent violence at your workplace you must follow three basic steps:

  1. Look for the hazards in your workplace in consultation with employees. In particular, look at the history and culture of the workplace. The Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017 (WHS Regulation) calls this identifying the hazard.
  2. Work out how serious your problems might be through employee consultation. Decide who might be affected, the factors contributing to the risk, how likely it is that an incident might occur and how serious the outcome might be. The WHS Regulation calls this assessing the risk.
  3. Eliminate hazards or reduce the risk by making changes that protect people. The WHS Regulation calls this controlling the risk.

Identifying violence hazards

Step 1 - Look for the hazards in your workplace: hazard identification.

There are a number of ways to identify workplace violence including:

  • Check incident and injury reports, and Workers Compensation records to identify past injuries.
  • Ensure you have an effective consultation process in place. Consult your employees who can use their own experiences to highlight problem areas or procedures. Encourage them to express their feelings and concerns regarding workplace violence.
  • Consult with the local police about what is happening in your area.
  • Survey staff (in confidence if necessary). Ask about incidents that may have occurred or other matters that had the potential to become violent.
  • Collect information about incidents or situations in workplaces similar to yours.
  • Consult industry experts who have experience with workplace violence.
  • Conduct workplace inspections to assess potential for workplace violence.
  • Set up a system for the reporting of incidents and injuries and ensure all staff are aware of and encouraged to report all incidents.
  • Employee Assistance Program information/data (if you have a program in place).

Some examples of tasks which expose workers to violence risks are shown in the following table, including those where the offender may be an internal person, a client or someone external to the business.

TaskViolence Risk

Working in competing or conflicting groups

Harassment or bullying

Providing service to injured, ill,distressed or disturbed clients

Threats, verbal or physical assault

Working for a service that may be seenas a political, social, economic, racialor other “target”

Threats, harassment, verbal or physical assault, hostage taking, sieges, property damage

Working alone, in isolated places, orlate at night

Armed hold-up, sexual or physical assault

Working with valuable goods or cashhandling (receiving, counting, sorting,transporting to bank, payroll)

Armed hold-up, physical assault

Working in the immediate vicinity of“high risk” businesses (eg: service stations, banks, liquor stores, late night stores, chemists)

Incidental violence - emotional trauma, physical injury, hostage taking

Assessing the risk

Step 2 - Work out how serious your problems might be: risk assessment.

Once you have completed the hazard identification, the next step is to assess risk associated with each hazard. The purpose is to determine:

  • which of the identified hazards is most likely to occur
  • what are the likely injuries that may result
  • how severe the injuries are likely to be
  • how many employees and others are likely to be exposed or affected

By focusing on all the issues in this manner you should be able to determine priorities. If a risk means violence is likely to occur and injure many employees, controlling the risk should be given a high priority. On the other hand, if a risk has been identified and then assessed as unlikely to occur or will not expose employees to an injury, it should be given a lower priority and dealt with at a later time.

Eliminating hazards or controlling the risk

Step 3 - Eliminate hazards or control the risk by making changes that protect people: risk control.

Having established where you may encounter hazards, you must now take preventative action to eliminate the hazards or reduce the risk.

There are a number of ways of reducing and/or managing workplace hazards. In some cases a combination of actions may be required to manage the hazard. On other occasions it may be necessary to employ both short and long term measures to reduce the risk to an acceptable level effectively.

The preferred option is, of course, to eliminate the risk in total, and every effort must be made to achieve this goal. This may not always be possible and in these cases you will work through other options until agreed and acceptable alternatives are found.

The principles of risk control are:

Eliminate the hazard

Change the system of work or workplace so as to eliminate any risk for workplace violence. Eliminating the reasons for workplace violence is the best method of protecting employees and others from the risk of workplace violence.

Replace the hazardous procedure with a less hazardous one

This applies to situations where it is not possible to eliminate the hazard. For instance, it would not be possible to remove cash from a financial institution totally. Look for safer alternatives that reduce the risk, for example counter cash levels and compartments.

Design safety and security into the premises and procedures

Consider hazardous situations when designing, building or modifying a workplace. It is possible to remove or reduce risk by design. This includes things such as improving visibility in and out of the workplace, location of workstations and counters, lighting, screens, alarms, surveillance systems and the like.

Provide training

Training is essential if any job is to be done safely. All employees must be trained in all safety policies and procedures and in the operation of any security equipment.

Appendix 1 lists some suitable violence control measures for a number of situations. It is also a good idea to talk to people who have experience with workplace violence in your industry. This may include Unions, Police, reputable security firms and other businesses.

An essential part of your plan is to be prepared. Despite preventative measures, incidents of workplace violence may still occur, and in case this happens an incident management plan should be developed detailing:

  • what to do during a violent incident
  • what to do after a violent incident
  • incident reporting mechanisms

All employees must understand the details of your incident management plan. All workers likely to be exposed to violence and aggression must be aware of and trained in (ie: practice) handling the types of situations that may happen in their workplace. Appendix 3 lists some general guidelines to follow.

Preventing workplace violence - practical ways to avoid violence situations

This section outlines practical ways to eliminate or minimise violence and aggression in your workplace.

You should select the most suitable risk controls for your business. Having more than one control measure for a particular risk would be an effective way of preventing workplace violence.

Drawing from this range of risk controls, you should select those most suitable for your business. Customers too can benefit from your workplace violence prevention efforts.

Controlling violence risks

Provide a secure work environment:

  • externally, buildings should be well lit, have ready means of access and egress and be maintained free of possible hiding places for aggressors
  • remove or restrict access to equipment that could be used as a weapon
  • ensure that staff are not working alone or in isolated locations
  • restrict business hours to safe times and locations

Install and use physical barriers and security systems:

  • provide a workplace that has service counters that act as a barrier to physical contact between clients and staff
  • lock doors to “staff only” areas and ensure that only staff have (and use) keys
  • install security and access key/card/code systems
  • provide a “safe area” for workers to retreat to in the event of an emergency

Remove the motivation or incentive for violence:

  • reduce cash holdings by encouraging use of electronic payment methods
  • reduce stocks of valuable items to minimum levels
  • advertise that your business has security measures to detect aggressors
  • Ensure that staff limit their personal valuables in the workplace

Ensure effective management including selecting the right people for the job, fair employment conditions, training, employee consultation and regular supervision:

  • promote the fact that harassment and bullying will not be tolerated and will result in disciplinary action
  • provide effective management and supervision - know where your workers are and what is happening in the workplace, both immediately and in the longer term
  • develop and implement grievance procedures to allow reporting and action

Change the method of contact between clients and employees to a “remote” service - use telephone or correspondence instead of face-to-face interaction.

Limit client interaction to times when there is “safety in numbers” for your staff.

Ensure that work systems and service do not provoke aggression from clients:

  • provide reasonable waiting times and facilities
  • ensure staff are trained in violence detection and management including complaint and grievance handling
  • provide clients with information about rights and responsibilities including their responsibilities to behave in an appropriate manner

Deter offenders by making it known that security measures are in place.

Provide detection measures - security video cameras, mirrors, “beepers” to announce customers’ entry to certain areas, and duress alarms.

Increasing the protection of workers by providing personal protection from risks

Where staff must work alone or in isolated locations, keep in contact with them:

  • provide an effective means of communication in case of emergency (mobile telephone, duress alarm)
  • know where staff should be (movement notification, itinerary) and keep in contact regularly

Ensure that workers can get to and from work in safety:

  • provide security or other staff to escort them to their car at night or provide a taxi
  • provide security staff internally and externally at night or during the day in high-risk industries or areas
  • provide personal alarms, or mobile telephone

Ensure that workers are not alone when dealing with potentially violent clients or when they have to raise and handle issues that may cause violence, such as collection of money or goods or dealing with disputes.

Where it provides an additional, back-up safety measure, which is necessary and acceptable to employees, provide employees with training in self-defence . It is always preferable to withdraw from a violence situation. Self-defence should be used only when a person under attack believes it is life threatening. The self- defence response should only be of sufficient force to enable the victim to escape further harm.

Training

An important step in implementing violence risk controls is providing any information, instruction and training necessary to ensure your staff’s health and safety. This will be a natural step, since you will have consulted with and involved workers in the entire risk management process. Your staff training program should be customised to cover the specific violence controls in your workplace.

Appendix 2 provides a list of topics you could cover when training staff in workplace violence issues. An essential part of training is to be trained in (ie: practice) handling the types of situations that may happen in their workplace. Appendix 3 lists some general incident management strategies.

Who needs to know the details about your risk controls for workplace violence?

Employers / Managers

Employers and managers must know the effects of workplace violence hazards. Managers and supervisors are accountable for: developing preventative measures in consultation with employees; making sure that preventative measures are understood by employees; and the preventative measures are monitored and are working.

In many smaller workplaces, employers and managers are directly exposed to these hazards, so their own health and safety and those of their employees must be protected.

Employees

Employees need to be consulted on the potential workplace violence hazards, and know the measures in place for their protection. They must be properly trained in how to use equipment in place, how to avoid risks, and what to do if a workplace violence hazard occurs.

Think about the needs of employees whose language is not English, and make sure they understand both the risks and the chosen controls.

Contractors, suppliers, customers and visitors

All people who undertake work for you, or enter your workplace as a visitor, must be provided with essential information about workplace violence arrangements. This should be done through signs, written and/or verbal information. The risk assessment process would determine the level of information provided.

Employers and managers must know the effects of workplace violence hazards. Managers and supervisors are accountable for: developing preventative measures in consultation with employees; making sure that preventative measures are understood by employees; and the preventative measures are monitored and are working.

In many smaller workplaces, employers and managers are directly exposed to these hazards, so their own health and safety and those of their employees must be protected.

Employees

Employees need to be consulted on the potential workplace violence hazards, and know the measures in place for their protection. They must be properly trained in how to use equipment in place, how to avoid risks, and what to do if a workplace violence hazard occurs.

Think about the needs of employees whose language is not English, and make sure they understand both the risks and the chosen controls.

Contractors, suppliers, customers and visitors

All people who undertake work for you, or enter your workplace as a visitor, must be provided with essential information about workplace violence arrangements. This should be done through signs, written and/or verbal information. The risk assessment process would determine the level of information provided.

Checking that your preventative measures are adequate

You may have already taken action to eliminate risks. It is important to know whether or not the decisions you made still provide effective safeguards for your employees before the health and safety of any person is put at risk.

Build in a periodic review of your procedures involving people in your workplace who have accountabilities for health and safety.

If work practices are modified or new work practices or control measures are introduced, review your preventative measures to ensure that they are effective and safe and that they create no new hazards.

If new information is obtained about a previously unidentified hazard, review your preventative measures. If an accident, injury, incident or ‘near miss’ involving workplace violence occurs, review the procedures you had in place, and make changes to prevent a recurrence.

Further information

References and further information

  • NSW Anti-discrimination Board, Level 17, 201 Elizabeth Street Sydney Ph (02) 92685544 lawlink.nsw.gov.au/adb
  • Comcare Australia Guidelines for the prevention and management of client aggression comcare.gov.au
  • SafeWork NSW and the NSW Department of Community Services (1996) Preventingviolence in the accommodation services of the social and community services industry safework.nsw.gov.au
  • SafeWork NSW and Baptist Community Services (1998) Managing residentaggression in aged-care facilities. safework.nsw.gov.au
  • SafeWork NSW Armed hold-ups and cash handling safework.nsw.gov.au
  • WorkSafe Western Australia Guidance note - working alone. safetyline.wa.gov.au
  • SafeWork NSW Occupational and Health and Safety Regulation 2001, SafeWork NSW safework.nsw.gov.au
  • SafeWork NSW (1996) Stress, the workplace and the individuaI, SafeWork NSW safework.nsw.gov.au
  • SafeWork NSW (2001), Workplace Violence in the Finance Sector: Guidelines, Checklists and Forms for Small to Medium Workplaces, Business Services Industry Reference Group safework.nsw.gov.au
  • NSW Department of Health (1996) Security and Safety: Minimum Standards forHealth Care Facilities, NSW Health Publication
  • Australian  Standard (1999)  Risk Management  AS-NZ  4360:1999, Standards Australia
  • Mayhew, C. (2000) Preventing violence within organisations: a practical handbook
  • Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra

For further information contact SafeWork Information Center Phone 13 10 50.

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