15 Jan 2019

Since 2016 there has been a 40% increase in instances of violence against shop workers, with one in six retail staff deciding not to report assaults and abuse from members of the public and others due to a perception that their employer will not take any meaningful measures to provide them with greater protection.

Challenging suspected thieves and enforcing age-restricted sales remain the two main triggers for abuse, with staff involved in cash handling, customer services and late night trading also being at a higher risk of violence, intimidation and abuse than others working in the retail sector. 

The consequences of work-related violence for employees are obvious and include: sickness absence; low morale; difficulties with staff retention and recruitment; compensation claims; and, particularly as a result of the rise in social media, the potential for reputational damage.

Reflecting the rise in the number of violent incidents in the retail sector, we are seeing a discrete, but tangible, increase in the number of clients being the subject of local authority investigations. Local authorities are deciding to commence investigations  in response to complaints from shop workers and RIDDOR reports that have been submitted. The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 impose a duty on employers to submit a RIDDOR report where an employee is  away from work or unable to perform their normal work duties for more than seven consecutive days as a result of non-consensual violence at work resulting in physical harm.

We have experience of local authorities deciding to investigate the policies and procedures of organisations where no attempts had been made to prevent retail staff at a particular location having to suffer repeated and regular verbal abuse and intimidation from different customers and where, as a result of a change in work equipment, there has been a significant increase in the risk of serious harm without suitable, additional, controls being introduced at the same time.

The general duty of care owed by employers under section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of their staff does of course extend to minimising the risk of harm, including psychological harm, from violence and abuse.

So what do organisations need to do to satisfy their statutory obligations and minimise the risk of a local authority investigation and potential enforcement action? As with other work-related risks, in order to comply with the duty imposed by the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, employers need to:

  • Conduct a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks posed by work-related violence;
  • Where a foreseeable risk of harm from violence exists, put in place arrangements to control the risks, which could involve changes to working practices and equipment, adapting the working environment and/or providing training on how to identify the early signs of aggressive behaviour and how best to manage or avoid such behaviour; and
  • Keep those arrangements under review to ensure that they remain effective, particularly where there has been a significant change to working practices, equipment or the working environment or following a significant incident of actual or threatened violence.

Key to understanding if there is a problem associated with a particular work activity or location, and therefore whether the current controls in place are adequate and what, if any, additional steps need to be taken, is employee feedback coupled with the prompt recording, classification and investigation of all incidents causing injury or where employees are left feeling at risk or in distress.

It is also important to have a robust and effective policy in place to tackle violence in the workplace, supported and driven by senior management, to demonstrate positive leadership and an organisation's commitment to the safety of its staff. 

Having no (or inadequate) procedures in place to manage work activities where a foreseeable risk of work-related violence exists, failing to properly support members of staff who are subjected to anti-social behaviour and violence, and neglecting to facilitate and support the prosecution of suspects, increases the risk of physical and psychological harm to staff as well as the potential for a local authority investigation, possible enforcement action and the adverse publicity which would inevitably accompany it.

Stephen is a Managing Associate in our Regulatory Team. We are nationally recognised as leading health and safety lawyers with a strong track record of supporting clients across a range of sectors. Our team has been involved in many of the leading health and safety cases in the last 20 years, including the prosecution of several organisations arising from the Buncefield Oil Terminal explosion in December 2005.  For more information, please contact Stephen at stephen.panton@wbd-uk.com or on 01752 677813.