Customer aggression and violence isn’t a new workplace hazard, however, the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 has seen an increase in customer aggression and violence for some businesses in the retail sector.

Work-related violence is any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work.

Everyone at work has a responsibility for health and safety, both physical and psychological, and to ensure that violence does not create a risk to their own or anyone else’s health and safety.

Examples of work-related violence include:

  • biting, spitting, scratching, hitting, kicking
  • throwing objects
  • pushing, shoving, tripping, grabbing
  • verbal threats
  • armed robbery
  • sexual assault
  • attacking with knives, guns, clubs or any other weapon.

Work-related violence can cause both physical and psychological harm to workers, and result in significant economic and social costs to them, their family, the business where they work and the wider community. Like all work health and safety risks it must be managed.

Your obligations

Work health and safety laws are designed to ensure the health and safety of workers, and others, in the workplace. ‘Health’ includes physical and psychological health.

Employer’s duties

As an employer of workers in the retail industry, a person who conducts a business or undertaking (PCBU), has an obligation to take care of the health and safety of workers and other people, like visitors to the workplace.

You must treat the risk of customer aggression and violence just as you would any other workplace hazard.  You must provide and maintain, so far as is reasonably practicable, a safe and healthy working environment.

In general, you should provide all workers with:

  • a safe physical and online working environment
  • safe work systems and procedures to prevent and respond to violence and aggression, such as procedures for working alone or at night
  • a workplace policy which sets out how the workplace will prevent and respond to violence and aggression, including acceptable standards of behaviour of all workers, customers and clients, and
  • information, training and supervision, such as how to use equipment like duress alarms, what to do during an incident, how to report incidents and how to access support services following an incident.

You must also consult with their workers – and with other PCBUs when applicable – about health and safety issues.

Worker duties

A worker must take reasonable care of their own health and safety in the workplace, and the health and safety of others who may be affected by their actions. They must also cooperate with reasonable instructions given by the PCBU.

Identifying hazards

Identifying hazards involves consulting with workers and other duty holders and observing how work is carried out to see what can go wrong.

Workplace violence can arise from hazards that increase stress and conflict.

For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses needed to comply with enforceable government directions and their COVID Safe plan. This may have included limits on the number of customers in stores, restrictions on products and services, contactless collection methods or requirements to be met as a condition of entry such as use of a QR code or having to wear a mask. These measures could become hazards that increase stress and violence.

External violence and aggression may occur due to:

  • general stress and anxiety in the community related to physical distancing rules, e.g. if people are not complying with the rules
  • condition of entry requirements such as a requirement to check in with QR codes or having to wear a mask
  • products and services are restricted or no longer available
  • business hours are limited
  • longer queues and wait times and limits on the number of customers in stores
  • workers do not have the information on-hand to respond to customer requests or are insufficiently trained; procedures have changed and workers and
  • customers are struggling to adjust
  • not enough workers available to serve the public
  • handling valuable or restricted items, for example cash or medicines
  • providing care to people who are distressed, confused, afraid, ill or affected by drugs and alcohol
  • workers are working in isolation, offsite or in the community, and
  • increased isolation from support.

Internal violence and aggression may also occur when:

  • workers are worried about the health risks they may be exposed to and the effectiveness of preventive measures
  • roles or workloads are poorly distributed among work teams
  • work schedules change
  • there is less face-to-face supervision, or workers are more isolated from support networks
  • workloads have increased or roles have changed, for example if extra focus is given to regular cleaning and disinfection of the workplace
  • workers are not adequately trained or familiar with products, services or workplace procedures
  • workers are worried about their job security
  • the workplace culture is hostile or does not prevent violence and aggression.

Racial discrimination may also increase in the form of individual acts of aggression, or collective forms such as targeting workplaces with workers of a particular nationality or ethnicity.

There may also be stigma around, and the potential for violence or aggression towards, people who have had COVID-19, or those who seem to be acting inconsistently with public health requirements.

Assessing risks

If you already know the risks associated with a hazard you have identified, and there are well-known and accepted ways to control it, it may not be necessary to assess the risk of that hazard. If you need to assess risk, you must seek input from your workers and others including relevant duty holders.

You could consider the following to work out the likelihood that someone could be harmed through workplace violence and aggression, and the degree of harm:

  • who could be exposed to hazards
  • when they are likely to be exposed to hazards
  • frequency and duration of exposure to hazards
  • the ways hazards interact to make new or greater risks
  • effectiveness of current control measures
  • the harm exposure could cause.

Potential harm could:

  • be physical or psychological
  • include minor or serious injury and illness, or death
  • be the result of a single incident, or a pattern or series of harmful events and experiences.

Managing the risks

Workplace violence and aggression can impact psychological and physical health.

New measures may be needed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the impacts this has had on your workplace or business operations.

External violence and aggression

To manage the risk of violence, aggression and harassment at the workplace, consider the following:

Physical work environment and security

  • ensure access to the premises is appropriately controlled
  • increase security measures such as security personnel, video surveillance or duress alarms
  • ensure internal and external lighting provides good visibility
  • arrange furniture and partitions to allow good visibility of service areas and avoid restrictive movement
  • separate workers from the public, for example install protective barriers or screens
  • prevent public access to the premises when people work alone or at night
  • limit the amount of cash, valuables and medicines held on the premises
  • ensure there are no dangerous objects that could be thrown or used to injure someone
  • provide workers and others with a safe place to retreat to avoid violence
  • put up signs to reflect that the workplace will not accept any forms of violence and aggression.

Work systems

  • manage expectations of customers and clients with communications about the nature and limits of the products or services you are now providing, for example online and using signage at the workplace, e.g. inform customers of reduced services, wait times, their place in the queue or offer them other methods for non-urgent requests (such as online forms)
  • place purchase limits on the sale of in-demand goods or take them off the shelves and require customers to ask for them specifically
  • provide information as soon as possible on the availability of services/products or processing delays
  • clarify the procedures which customers may not be familiar with, such as physical distancing in stores and queuing procedures
  • adapt opening hours if necessary, and clearly communicate this to the public
  • avoid workers needing to work in isolation and provide sufficient staff during periods of high customer attendance
  • monitor workers when they are working in the community or away from the workplace, for example a supervisor checks in regularly throughout the shift
  • alternate the task of working with customers (in person or over the phone) with other work tasks and ensure workers have their regular breaks
  • promote awareness messages to customers about new constraints due to the COVID-19 situation (e.g. requirement to sign-in with a QR code or wear a mask), encouraging them to show patience, respect and understanding
  • evaluate your work practices, in consultation with your workers and their representatives, to see if they contribute to violence and aggression
  • train workers in how to deal with difficult customers, conflict resolution and when to escalate problem calls to senior staff, including procedures to report incidents
  • ensure that workers are made aware of their right to cease unsafe work.

Internal violence and aggression

There are many things you can do to reduce the risk of violence, aggression and harassment between workers, supervisors and managers, including:

  • provide a positive, respectful work culture where violence, aggression and harassment is not tolerated
  • provide a consistent approach to prevent inappropriate behaviour from escalating
  • regularly review workloads and time pressures with your workers and their representatives
  • ask workers to provide screen shots and keep records if aggressive behaviour occurs online
  • improve role clarity by ensuring your workers have well-defined roles and the expectations of them are clear
  • provide adequate resources such as offering a free employee assistance program to assist workers with their mental health and also specific training to your workers so they are able to perform their role confidently and competently.

Responding to incidents

Responses to work-related violence, aggression and harassment will vary depending on the nature and severity of the incident.

At the time of an incident

Workers should be trained in what to do during a violent or aggressive incident, such as:

  • using calm verbal and non-verbal communication
  • using verbal de-escalation and distraction techniques
  • seeking support from other workers
  • asking the aggressor to leave the premises or disconnecting the aggressor from the phone call
  • activating alarms or alerting security personnel or police
  • retreating to a safe location.

Immediately after an incident

Immediately after a violent or aggressive incident, you should:

  • ensure that everyone is safe
  • provide first aid or urgent medical attention where necessary
  • provide individual support where required, including psychological support to the victim and other workers
  • report what happened, who was affected and who was involved.
  • You may need to notify your SafeWork SA if the incident is a ‘notifiable incident’. Refer to Workplace incident notifications for more information.

Further information