Violence at Work (UK)

What is Violence at Work?

Many people think of violence at work only in terms of physical attacks on staff by members of the public. However, in the context of workplace Health & Safety the meaning of 'violence' has been broadened to encapsulate all kinds of abusive, aggressive behaviour or actions that might contribute towards or result in physical and/or psychological harm happening to the victim. This broadened interpretation has stemmed from the 'duty of care' obligation that all employers have to protect against harm happening and has arisen out of the need to be able to categorise incidents in order to be able to 'manage down' the risks.


The HSE's definition is not broad enough

The current HSE definition of violence at work is:

‘Any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work’.

From a risk management perspective, the HSE's definition of violence at work is not really broad enough. A significant problem with the HSE definition is that it restricts 'victims of violence at work' to those who suffer violence relating to their work and excludes all other victims (e.g. victims of patient on patient violence and staff on patient violence in a hospital), when the fact is that employers have a duty to protect others besides people who are working for them (e.g. customers, contractors, delivery agents and other visitors - even unwelcome intruders, etc.) Also, in a lot of cases, violent behaviour is directed at property and this too is excluded by the HSE's definition.

So, adopting the HSE's definition could complicate reporting and controlling the risks.


Directly related to the person's work

HSE have stated that to be within the scope of Health & Safety legislation (violent) incidents must be directly related to the person's work and has provided the following examples:

1. An example of an incident directly related to work would be an employee who resented an instruction to work overtime assaulting a supervisor.

2 Another example of an incident directly related to work would be where a relative of a patient verbally abuses a hospital receptionist because they believed waiting times were excessive.

3. An example of an incident occurring at work, but which would not be considered by the HSE to be workplace related, would be an assault of a supervisor by an employee because he believes the supervisor has stolen his wallet.


What about employees travelling between home and work?

HSE have stated that violence to employees travelling between home and their normal place of work will not be within the scope of health and safety legislation even if they are subject to an assault which is linked to their employment, (e.g. an assault by someone who has a grievance connected with the employee's work). However, violence sustained during travel that forms part of legitimate employment will be within the scope of health and safety legislation if it is directly related to work. Examples would be a social worker being assaulted whilst removing a child from its home or a lorry driver being assaulted in the course of a hijack.


What needs to be appreciated

What needs to be appreciated is that HSE is focussed exclusively on the Health & Safety legislation and not other legal liability aspects and so, when taken in isolation, HSE comments may present a distorted perspective. For example, HSE stating that a particular situation does not fall within the scope of the Health & Safety legislation may give the impression that an employer's liability in such circumstances is not compromised - when in fact the employer may well be liable for what happens under the common law or contract law.


Every workplace is at risk of violence

The potential for violence to happen exists in every single workplace, even where parties do not actually meet in person (e.g. Telesales canvassers being verbally abused by people they contact on the telephone).


All kinds of violence have the potential to result in serious harm to the victim

Violence can manifest in a wide variety of different forms - physical and non physical - and incidents can happen at any time.

Every single violent incident has the potential to end in a person's death.

Whether intentional or not - physical force used in an abusive (or defensive) way will always bring a possibility of a loss of life. Just pushing someone, for example, could cause them to lose their balance and bash their head/ break their neck falling on a hard surface and all forms of non physical kinds of violence can lead to victims taking the decision to kill themselves. Bullying is a contributory factor in an alarming number of suicides.