News & Insights
What is workplace violence?
Significant numbers of Australian workers experience work-related violence or aggression. Workplace violence is any incident where a person is threatened, abused or assaulted at the workplace or while they are carrying out work. This might occur at their usual place of work, while they are working remotely, including in their home; or when they are engaged in a workplace-related activity such as a corporate function or social event.
Workplace violence can be categorised as:
- Internal violence - the risk of violence or aggression between co-workers, supervisors, management or other staff
- External violence - when customers, clients, members of the public, patients, or those from other businesses take violent or aggressive action against workers who they interact with.
Whether it manifests as physical or sexual abuse, verbal or emotional abuse, gendered violence, customer aggression, written threats, or another form; workplace violence can harm both the person it is directed at, and anyone witnessing it. It can lead to a range of adverse impacts, from feelings of isolation, loss of confidence, physical injury, stress, physical illness such as cardiovascular disease, or even suicidal thoughts.
Workplace violence and aggression is unfortunately seen in all industries. However, it is most commonly observed in roles which require frequent interaction with external clients or the public, such as in healthcare and social assistance, public administration and safety (such as police officers and welfare support workers), retail and hospitality, and education and training services.
There has been an increasing trend in the incidence of workplace violence and aggression in recent years, with more and more employers identifying it as a major concern. For example, in 2020, WorkSafe Victoria reported an increasing number of healthcare professionals who described experiences of verbal and/or physical assault while at work. The COVID-19 pandemic created a rapidly changing working environment with increasing external stressors which exacerbated this trend, particularly in sectors such as healthcare and retail. For instance, the National Retail Association (2021) reported that over the pandemic, incidents of workplace violence spiked by 400%.
Adequately equipping managers, workers and organisations with the right frameworks, systems, knowledge and training is key to ensuring that workplace violence risks are identified and managed, and that an appropriate response can be implemented in these scenarios.
Incidents of workplace violence have increased during and after the pandemic
The legislative framework
Everyone has the right to feel safe at work, and to perform their job free from violence, assault, harassment, bullying or discrimination.
Under the Model WHS legislation, Persons Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBUs) have a duty of care to eliminate (or where not possible, minimise) risks to the health and safety of their workers, and other persons so far as is reasonably practicable, including physical and psychosocial risks associated with work-related violence and aggression. PCBUs must also consult, co-operate and co-ordinate with other businesses they interact with (or share premises with) about how they will discharge their WHS duties when interacting with the PCBUs workers. In the context of workplace violence and aggression, this might involve for example, coordination around the safe accessibility of shared facilities, expected behaviours of everyone at the workplace, or response protocols in the event of a violent incident at the workplace.
Officers, such as company directors, must exercise due diligence to verify that the business or undertaking complies with the WHS legislation. For workplace violence and aggression, this would comprise taking reasonable steps to ensure the business or undertaking has and implements appropriate processes and resources to eliminate or minimise workplace violence and aggression risks.
Workers have a duty to take reasonable care of their own health and safety in the workplace, and that of others who may be affected by their actions. This includes complying with reasonable instruction, policies and procedures from their employer regarding workplace violence and aggression prevention.
Managing workplace violence risk
When addressing workplace aggression and violence, it is important to take a holistic and sustainable approach. Implementing risk management frameworks for workplace aggression includes multiple stages as outlined below, in line with best practice risk management process.
Risk Identification & Assessment
To develop an appropriate management strategy, it is first imperative to understand the specific risk profile related to aggression and violence for a particular workplace. This requires a robust risk assessment to identify and assess workplace violence and aggression hazards, considering the workplace-specific factors which may increase the risk. The risk assessment should be inclusive of review of policies, procedures, existing data, specific workplace activities, observed worker behaviours in the workplace, and physical layout, design,location and other factors relevant to the workplace environment.
Verifying the risk assessment and obtaining perceptions of the ‘current situation’ requires engagement and consultation with a wide range of stakeholders, from the workers themselves, through all levels of an organisation, to other key parties who regularly interact with the operations of an organisation. This process helps identify the particular situations or triggering events where aggressive or violent behaviours may occur, the implications and severity of these, possible means of eliminating or minimising those situations, and, where that is not achievable - ensuring existing response processes are appropriate.
Risk Management Framework
The aim is always to eliminate the risk where reasonably practicable. Where this is not achievable, reducing the risk so far as reasonably practicable becomes the objective. Controlling risks associated with occupational violence can be achieved via evaluation and management of several factors, such as:
- Adequate planning and design of the workplace, layout and other environmental features of the physical work environment
- Implementing safe systems of work, considering the timing, nature and type of work activity
- Promotion of positive behaviours and setting expectations with regards to interactions between workers and other persons
- Building knowledge, skills and training of workers on violence and aggression management.
Physical Work Environment
Enhancing the physical work environment and security can reduce the likelihood of violence and aggression, and support workers when responding to incidents. Simple steps can be effective, such as ensuring external and internal areas are well lit, or arranging furniture and internal partitions to ensure good visibility of service areas.
Engineering controls such as physical barriers, secure access facilities, service windows for night-time transactions, or safe places where workers can retreat to in an incident, may be appropriate in high-risk situations.
Additional security protocols including video surveillance, body-worn cameras, distress alarms, security patrols, or assistance from local law enforcement agencies for high-risk work environments can also be considered.
Safe Work Systems, Procedures and Policies
Work systems, procedures, and operational activities should comprehensively define the agreed management and mitigation of aggression risk, seeking a zero-tolerance approach to workplace violence. These systems and procedures may incorporate a wide range of principles. Examples include:
- Redesign of processes to avoid the requirement for workers to work in isolation
- Procedures and monitoring for those working in isolation or in uncontrolled environments
- Implementing task rotation protocols to ensure workers have regular breaks from activities where there is a heightened risk of violence or aggression
- Regularly evaluating work practices, in consultation with workers, to determine if they may contribute to violence.
Clearly defined workplace policies addressing workplace violence and aggression can help to articulate expected behaviours, and management of violence in the workplace. A policy addressing workplace violence and aggression might incorporate:
- A statement outlining the workplace’s ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to any form of violence or aggression from any person, illustrated with examples of the types of acceptable and non-acceptable workplace behaviours
- The process workers can use to report incidents or concern, no matter how minor the incident may appear to be
- The consequences for breaching the policy, and how concerns and potential breaches will be managed.
Worker Behaviours and Workplace Culture
Fostering, modelling and promoting positive and respectful workplace cultures with a zero-tolerance approach to violence and aggression plays a key role in managing the risk of inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.
Ensuring expected behaviours and relevant policies are clearly promoted in simple language, for example by using clear signage, audio recordings and video messaging, helps to build awareness of expected conduct and behaviour amongst workers, customers and other persons at the workplace.
Information, Instruction, Training and Supervision
In addition to building confidence in worker perceptions of their psychosocial and physical safety at work, ensuring workers are aware, familiar and knowledgeable when it comes to workplace violence and aggression is a key element of effective risk management. Ensuring workers are informed about workplace policies on violence and aggression can be achieved via displaying information on noticeboards or posters, publishing information on the staff intranet, verbally informing workers about policies, and/or providing training about violence and aggression.
Induction and refresher training should incorporate workplace aggression and violence management, and specific training and instruction should be provided for workers who have been identified as being at risk (e.g., workers who are directly in contact with clients or members of public for the purposes of their role.)
Training is integral to building and strengthening knowledge, skills and confidence to prevent and effectively manage occupational violence and aggression in the workplace.
Appropriate training topics include:
- Understanding and identification of violence and aggression in the workplace, and common triggers
- Developing capability in the use of static and dynamic risk assessments to identify and respond to triggers and warning signs
- Frameworks of de-escalation strategies such as the use of non-threatening body language, negotiation techniques, demonstration of empathy, and specific communication styles
- Self-defensive and self-protective behaviours, employing a safety-first approach at all times
- Post incident response protocols
- Resources and support available to workers (to promote and safeguard their physical as well as psychosocial safety)
- Management's expressed commitment to ensuring adequate safe systems of work and a work environment, free from the risk of violence and aggression.
How can Greencap help?
Greencap’s team of Health and Safety professionals and consultants support a wide range of clients across multiple industry sectors providing information and support around:
- Emergency Evacuation Procedures and Signage
- Psychosocial Risk Assessments and Management
- Static and Dynamic Risk assessment Training
- Workplace Aggression Services
- Site Assessments
- Emergency Pre-Incident Planning (including Post-Incident Responses)
- Other suitable risk assessment support
For further information please visit greencap.com.au/health-safety-management
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