Work-related violence, defined by the Health and Safety Executive as "any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work" is becoming a subject of increasing importance for employers. It is an issue that is often overlooked when risk assessments are carried out.

Although the British Crime Survey reported that, across the country, crime is down by 36% since 1997, it also reports that there were an estimated 321,000 assaults suffered by people at work (up from 288,000 in 2006/7) and another 305,000 threats of violence. Any employee who deals with members of the public is at potential risk from violence and aggression. Employers must therefore assess the risk and take measures to deal with such incidents.

Violence can range from a physical attacks (with fatal and serious consequence), to verbal abuse and threats of violence. Apart from the injuries, pain and distress caused, the consequences of work-related violence can be wide ranging and include:

• poor morale among staff and a poor business image;
• staff recruitment and retention become difficult;
• extra costs for absenteeism;
• higher insurance premiums and compensation payments; and
• damage to employees health through continuing anxiety or stress.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to consider workplace violence and aggression when managing the health, safety and welfare of their employees whilst at work. Where violence and aggression is a hazard faced by employees, employers must take it into account when planning, organising and controlling the health and safety of their workforce. In addition, they must regularly review and check that those arrangements are working properly.

Any injury to a worker caused by a non-consensual act of violence at work is reportable to the enforcing authorities if it results in death, major injury or incapacity to work for three or more consecutive days.

So what do you need to do?

Firstly, identify which employees are at risk, decide who might be harmed, and how. Those who have face-to-face contact with the public are usually the most vulnerable. Think about the people who your workers come into contact with, asking yourself if any are known to be or could become violent. Go on to consider any arrangements you already have in place. Are they sufficient to reduce the risk to an acceptable level? If not what more could you do?

One of the key safety precautions you can take is to train your employees to recognise the early signs of aggressive behaviour and how to respond to these signs by either coping with or avoiding it. In many situations physical measures can help control or remove the risk of violence. These include very visible closed circuit television systems and personal attack alarms. Other measures include wide desks or counters to keep staff and customers, or clients apart. Locked doors or security doors can be used to keep the public out of staff areas. The employment of security staff may well be a consideration in some situations.

Risks are particularly high where large sums of money are handled in the course of the work activity. Having large amounts of cash in the tills or on the premises is always a temptation for potential thieves. Consider emptying the tills frequently and consider whether you could increase the use of cash alternatives such as cheques or credit cards to make robbery less attractive.

The bottom line is that no one should be subjected to violence and aggression whilst at work. However the behaviour of customers, clients and the public is entirely unpredictable and you can never guarantee that it will not happen. Your arrangements must therefore include details of your response to an incidence of work related violence. You need to specify the circumstances in which you would refer violent acts or threats of violence to the police. You also need to consider how the aftermath of an incident is handled. Would you shut for the rest of the day? How would you deal with other distressed workers? Would you provide or arrange for counselling of traumatised workers? Would you allow time for workers to give witness statements to the police?

After any incident it is important to review what happened, the procedures that were in place, how they worked in practice and whether they need changing to prevent a similar occurrence in the future.

When you consider these issues it is always of benefit to include workers in the process. This not only ensures that you comply with your duty to consult on health and safety issues but also brings detailed information from those who are directly at risk. They can often identify risks that may not occur to you or simple cost-effective solutions to some of the issues. Remember that where people are consulted and are part of developing a system you will have already gained their approval and acceptance. It is therefore likely to be followed in practice and be effective.

For further advice on this topic please contact your Health and Safety Consultant or our 24 Hour Advice Service on 0844 892 2785.