Take care of your staff and your business

Jane Green

Retail employees shouldn’t face the prospect of assault when they go on shift but sadly acts of violence against shop staff do occur. What are employers’ responsibilities and what strategy should they adopt?

NO-ONE expects to be assaulted at their place of work but as many as three million working days could be lost due to violent incidents at work every year. The grocery sector is not immune, with regular reports of staff facing abuse, threats or even assaults. Employers have a common law duty of care towards employees, which extends to the risk of work-related violence. In addition, there is legislation in place that sets out employers’ responsibilities to staff in relation to violence at work.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities are responsible for the enforcement of health and safety regulations. There is a broad obligation on employers to protect the health and safety of employees, as part of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. This requires employers to safeguard, so far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of employees.
Employers must take action to prevent and protect staff from exposure to reasonably foreseeable violence and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to assess any potential risks that may face its employees. The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases, and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995 (RIDDOR) require reporting of violent incidents leading to serious injury. Finally, employers must also consult with employees regarding health and safety issues, in line with the Safety Representative and Safety Committees Regulations 1977 and The Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations 1996. Such consultation can be conducted through a trade union or similar employee representative.
The failure to comply with current legislation can result in criminal prosecutions and employers could also face direct claims from their employees. Employees who have been the victims of violence may raise personal injury claims where they believe the employer has failed to protect them, or progress a constructive dismissal complaint, where they believe that the employer’s negligence has left them no choice but to leave. Such incidents may have left employees physically injured or suffering from anxiety, depression or stress, which may lead to long-term absence.
An employer that has failed to fulfil the legal duties will struggle to defend legal claims from injured or aggrieved staff. There is also a risk that claims may lead to higher insurance premiums and staff costs to cover absence, in addition to wider reputational damage that could negatively impact future recruitment.
The HSE’s Preventing Violence to Retail Staff guidance sets out the basic requirements for compliance. As a starting point, retailers should carry out a comprehensive risk assessment to review the potential risks facing staff. This should be an ongoing process and reviewed regularly. Through consultation with employees, employers should identify ways of reducing the risks and managing incidents. It is a process that should take into account the physical working environment and design of the job. Employees should also be given the opportunity to understand the systems in place to protect them and the specific process they should follow if they feel under threat.
Some of the specific recommendations include: the review of cash handling and collection; changing the location of higher value items; better lighting; protective screening; monitoring and protection of exits and delivery points. This should also include guidance for staff on what to do when customers complain, which may help reduce the risk of the incident escalating. The potential threats facing lone workers and those working remotely from the premises, such as delivery and collection staff, should also be assessed.
Communication is a key issue when tackling violence in the workplace and employers should ensure there is an open channel of communication, to allow information to flow freely. While an employer can never eradicate the risk of work related violence, a clear focus, backed by some basic measures, can help reduce the potential threat to staff and the business itself.