LRD Booklets July 2001

Violence at work - a safety rep's guide


The scale of the problem

The issue of work-related violence from members of the public is of increasing concern. Teachers, nurses, transport workers and many others are reporting increased levels of attacks and aggression against them. Unions have long been campaigning on this issue and the government is now responding by calling for tougher penalties for those convicted of crimes of violence against workers. It is also promoting national initiatives such as the Zero Tolerance Campaign within the NHS.

One in five workers have been physically attacked or threatened while at work according to the Self-reported Work-related Illness Survey undertaken in 1995-96 for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The 1998 British Crime Survey (BCS) estimates that there were just over 1.2 million incidents of violence at work in England and Wales in 1997. This comprises 523,000 physical assaults and 703,000 threats perpetrated by a member of the public against someone while they were working. Some workers were assaulted or threatened more than once. The BCS estimates that nearly three per cent of working adults had been victims of at least one violent incident at work in 1997. It points out that crime surveys are likely to undercount incidents.

In the TUC biennial survey of safety reps 2000, 28% of safety reps said the presence of violence was one of the top five workplace hazards their members face and even more (32%) identified lone working as a major hazard. In the voluntary sector, violence was the third most important hazard with 49% of reps identifying it as one of the main hazards at work. Concerns about violence and working alone were highest in smaller workplaces with less than 50 employees.

The TUC thinks that the law on violence at work seems to be adequate but they are concerned that employers seem to have adopted the attitude that violence is unpredictable and therefore cannot be prevented. Its 1999 report on preventing violence at work, Violent Times, says:

"Unions need to take a lead in workplaces on violence, not only expressing the fears and concerns of working people, but also pressing employers to accept that it is their legal responsibility to prevent violence in exactly the same way as they would address any other threat to health and safety."

This booklet looks at what can be done to tackle violence and aggression at work. It outlines the law, considers those most at risk and looks at union and HSE guidance on how to tackle this issue. It does not deal with violence between colleagues which should be dealt with by other procedures such as disciplinary, bullying or harassment policies.


In order to begin to tackle workplace violence it is useful develop a definition.

The HSE definition of work-related violence, used also by the TUC, is:

"Any incident in which an employee is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work".

The HSE guidance to enforcement officers goes on to say:

"The definition includes violence to employees at work by members of the public, whether inside the workplace or elsewhere when the violence arises out of the employees' work activity. For example, this might include violence to teachers from pupils, to doctors/nurses from patients, to peripatetic employees whose work involves visiting the sick, or collecting payments, security staff or to officials enforcing legislation."

Some unions prefer even more specific definitions, for example the definition UNISON favours for use within the NHS is:

"Any incident in which a person working in the health care sector is verbally abused, threatened or assaulted by a patient or member of public in circumstances relating to his or her employment"

This definition is also useful as it includes those such as volunteers who work alongside employees. It also specifically excludes violence perpetrated by colleagues. This is because the union believes that it is important to separate incidents involving violence by the public from those that might involve work colleagues, such as bullying and harassment. It believes that employers should be using different policies and procedures (usually bullying, harassment and disciplinary procedures) to deal with violence between colleagues.

Violent behaviour

The above definitions include a range of behaviours. Assault can include:

* grabbing, pushing or shoving;

* punching or slapping;

* kicking;

* biting; and

* attacks with weapons such as knives, bottles and glasses and even guns.

Verbal abuse and threats include behaviour such as:

* swearing;

* racial and sexual abuse;

* shouting;

* leaving offensive messages on an answerphone;

* pointing;

* rude gestures; and

* deliberate silence.