LRD Booklets February 2017

Protecting workers from violence and abuse - a union rep's guide



[pages 5-6]

Work-related violence threatens dignity, security, health and well-being and impacts not only on workers and employers, but also on their families, communities, economies and society as a whole, states the International Labour Organisation.

A 2015 report evaluating the implementation of a European-level agreement on harassment and violence at work reported that the UK has some of the highest levels of work-related violence in Europe. And a 2016 TUC-commissioned survey found that one in eight people have experienced work-related violence such as being spat on, punched or even stabbed. Several unions have expressed concern that their members are facing an increased risk of violence at work as a result of the government’s austerity policies and public spending cuts. The TUC also reported that one of the biggest changes in the findings of its 2016 biennial Safety Reps Survey was concern over violence and threats, particularly in the public sector.

While harassment and violence can potentially affect any workplace, workers most at risk are those most in contact with people from outside their workplace. Those working in the protective service occupations (including prison officers, fire service officers, police officers and police community support officers) are most at risk of violence followed by those in health and social care, according to the latest Crime Survey for England and Wales. But many other groups of workers are affected.

In January 2017 members of the RMT and TSSA transport unions employed on the London Underground (LU) took industrial action in protest at the impact of hundreds of job cuts which they say not only closed ticket offices, but also seriously downgraded safety monitoring. The RMT described a growing safety and security crisis while a survey carried out by TSSA in late 2016 found that staff in LU stations have been working in fear since the ticket offices closed. The union reported that more than 2,000 separate incidents of passenger abuse occurred in the six months from when machine-only ticketing was introduced in April 2016 and 87% of members said they felt less safe at work than they did six months ago.

Meanwhile, in response to rising levels of violence in prisons, members of the POA prison workers’ union (who are not allowed to strike) were forced in late 2016 to “retreat to places of safety when their personal health & safety has been placed at serious and imminent risk”. The union described prisons as “dangerous and unsafe places of work” with prison violence levels rocketing. Ministry of Justice figures showed a 35% increase in violent assaults in the 12 months to June 2016, with a 43% increase in attacks on staff. The POA firmly linked the increase to austerity policies which have seen 10,000 uniformed staff jobs lost since 2010, while prisoner numbers have been rising.

Retail workers have been increasingly exposed to violence and abuse with the British Retail Consortium’s 2017 Retail Crime survey reporting a 40% rise in violence to staff during 2016, with the biggest increase in aggressive and abusive behaviour. A separate report by retail workers’ union Usdaw showed that nearly one in ten shop workers have been assaulted in the course of their duties but almost a third did not report the incident.

In local government, concern over violence has sharply increased compared to 2014, with the TUC’s biennial survey of safety reps reporting that almost half (47%) of respondents cite violence in their top five list of concerns, up from just over a quarter (26%) two years ago.

This booklet explains what work-related violence and abuse is, provides practical guidance on how to prevent or reduce the risk of it happening and also gives advice on what action to take when it does occur. Along with most unions this booklet distinguishes work-related violence, also referred to as third-party violence, from bullying and harassment by colleagues and/or managers: this topic is covered in another LRD booklet Bullying and harassment at work – a guide for trade union reps (

This guide provides union reps with clear advice on what they can do to tackle violence and abuse at work. It examines:

• the scale of the problem, the causes of violence at work, and the consequences for workers and organisations; 

• how union representatives can use the law to persuade employers to take action to prevent violence at work, examining the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and other relevant legislation and highlighting recent landmark legal decisions and other case law;

• official guidance from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as well as TUC and union guidance on tackling violence and abuse;

• how unions and the TUC are responding to cyber violence and abuse on social media and violence targeting particular groups of workers; and

• how unions and the TUC are taking action to tackle work-related violence from workplace to national, European and international level.