"Abuse is not part of the job…. Too often retail employees are confronted with violence, threats and abuse as a part of their daily working lives and it is really important we stand together and ask people to respect shopworkers."[1]

Threats and violence against retail staff are on the increase, with over 400 assaults on shop staff each day, according to research undertaken by the shop workers' union, Usdaw[2][3].

While on the one hand this is a straightforward issue of criminal law enforcement, which should be dealt with by the criminal justice system, in this article we consider the duties placed on businesses across all industries to protect staff from violence and aggression at work. In an era of less police on the streets, is it simply a matter of time before employers face greater scrutiny on what they are doing to protect their staff?

Going home safely

The primary goal is always that workers go home safely. Yet statistics recently released by Usdaw make for worrying reading, indicating[4]:

  • 65% of shopworkers had been the subject of verbal abuse;

  • 41% had been threatened;

  • Nearly 5% had been assaulted (which equates to around 390 per day); and

  • There is a serious issue of under reporting incidents by staff[5].

Statistics from the Association of Convenience Stores show that over 50,000 convenience store workers were assaulted last year, with 25% of incidents resulting in injury[6]. Clearly, this is an unacceptable state of affairs.

No business wants its staff to be the victim of violence/aggression. Incidents of violence/aggression contribute to increased staff turnover, absence and poor job performance, and add to work-related stress, an area the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has confirmed it will be focusing on in its Business Plan for 2019/20[7] (for the third year running) and which it expects businesses to address like any other work-related hazard[8]. Indeed, the HSE has recently stressed that the organisation will not tolerate violence, aggression or abuse of its own staff after a man was sentenced for a public order offence[9].

Usdaw has rightly called for action to be taken by government to protect staff at work, focusing on greater police presence, funding, new legislation and increased sentencing of offenders.

Prior to the election, the issue had been discussed in Parliament. Interestingly, a Bill has been lodged in the Scottish Parliament creating new criminal offences to give additional protection for workers in the retail sector, and those who sell age-restricted items, such as bar and restaurant staff[10]. It remains to be seen how the Bill will progress and whether a similar approach will be adopted across the UK. Interestingly, MP Gareth Thomas has recently published an early day motion urging Parliament to support a new law to make attacking a shopworker a specific criminal offence[11].

Existing duties

All businesses will be familiar with their duty to take reasonable steps to protect an employee's health and safety at work[12]. This is actioned via an assessment of the risks employees face[13] (e.g. lifting injury) and the implementation of control measures to reduce that risk to the lowest level reasonably practicable (e.g. lifting equipment and/or manual handling training).

Where staff interact with members of the public, the risk of violence/aggression is likely to be a foreseeable one and, indeed, the HSE has published guidance addressing the issue[14]. Retail staff deal with cash and potentially high value goods making shops potential targets for theft and robbery. Premises may be located in higher risk areas. In addition, and importantly for a risk assessment, there are specific transactions which the surveys undertaken by Usdaw highlight as potential flashpoints – alcohol and other age related sales[15] where the emphasis is on the staff member to enforce the law by refusing to serve customers (or face sanctions for failing to do so).

However, health and safety in the retail sector is enforced by individual local authorities rather than the HSE[16], meaning there is no joined up national approach. In light of the statistics above, should local authorities now consider this a priority issue and area for enforcement?

What should businesses do?

Businesses have a responsibility to take reasonably practicable measures to protect staff from foreseeable risks. Where staff interact with members of the public (particularly around the flashpoint areas referred to above) dealing with violence/aggression is a foreseeable risk, which arguably increases where staff are lone working.

To address these risks businesses should consider the following (non-exhaustive) list:

  • The type of work undertaken – does the nature of the business increase the risk? Does the business hold large sums of cash/high value goods increasing the risk of theft/robbery? Does the work involve potential known flashpoints, for example age restricted sales?

  • Are staff lone working?

  • Location – consider the profile of the area – what do crime statistics and local policing priorities indicate? Statistics themselves deal with reported crime so only tell part of the story. Are there any issues around specific times of the day - opening and closing when less people will be around? Does the area change depending on the time of day – if premises open early/close late, what is the area like then? A busy high street may be a different prospect after hours.

  • Consult with staff – the research indicates incidents are underreported to employers and the police. The staff who work (and potentially live) in the area can give a more holistic view than statistics alone. What do they say about the area? Do they have any concerns?

  • What are other businesses nearby doing? – while businesses compete for customers they share a common interest in protecting staff members and dealing with risks in the locality. Is there a scheme to share information between businesses in the area?

  • Are current security measures adequate? – consider the role staff undertake. Where in the premises are security measures they located? Where are staff most at risk? Do they have access to security measures at these locations?

  • Reporting – Is there an appropriate mechanism for staff to report incidents and is it being used? Again, the key to understanding the issue is to encourage staff to report and talk about it.

Once risks have been evaluated, the next step is to consider if additional measures are needed. The assessment may indicate no new measures are required, but it is important this is reviewed (and documented) periodically or following an incident to demonstrate a business has monitored the risk.

When considering the risks of violence/aggression control measures fall broadly into two categories:

  • Physical: such control measures will include visible deterrent measures such as CCTV, warning signs, alarms, lighting in poorly lit areas, personal alarms, secure fencing and security personnel.

  • Behavioural: such controls may include an avoidance of lone working in certain situations, as well as staff training in conflict resolution and de-escalation.

Making workplaces safer

So how likely are we to see a push in this direction from regulators? We know that stress and welfare is one of the HSE's key priorities, and our experience indicates that safety and security is becoming an area of increased focus for local authorities. We wait to see how the government will respond, but in times of reduced police numbers on our streets, will we see a greater burden placed onto business? Will we see a corresponding shift in focus from regulators?

The statistics present a worrying trend for retail and other businesses where staff are engaging with members of the public. Violence and aggression against customer-facing staff is clearly a foreseeable risk, which businesses are under a legal (and moral) duty to take action against. This action is to assess risk, consult with staff and take reasonable precautions to make workplaces safer. When all is said and done, every business wants its staff to go home safely.