Few companies have any kind of strategy to deal with violence in the workplace. Of the money spent on security measures, less than 1% is spent on training staff and an even smaller percentage training them how to deal with aggressive customers or even colleagues. However, the Health & Safety at Work Act (1996) states that an accident at work includes a non-consensual act of violence and requires employers to take all reasonable measures, including the training of staff, to prevent such accidents.
So should employers do more to protect staff against violence in the workplace?
Yes, according to Mark Dawes, a personal safety consultant to Safeway; an ex-marine, prison officer and hostage negotiator, he is all too aware of the risks of a violent environment. Workplace violence, he suggests, is much more frequent than employers generally realise, with retail staff, nurses, teachers, taxi drivers, traffic wardens, ambulance drivers, barmen and social workers all facing aggression on a daily basis. Dawes estimates that there is an assault on a retail employee during every minute of every day. 'Shoplifters make up 62% of this total - the rest are mostly drunks, drug addicts or angry customers,' he says.
Geoff Fox, national training officer for Pinkerton, runs a course on the management of aggressive behaviour (MOAB). MOAB training teaches managers and staff how to recognise fear and anger in themselves, and therefore to see it more easily in others. Fox's courses are effective, he believes, but admits that the 'very unpredictability (of aggressive behaviour) makes it difficult to handle - and even with all the training in the world, a confrontation could still turn to violence.' Even so, he believes that 'the first priority must be to protect staff - no argument can be worth the risk of serious injury'.
Carol Jackson, head of the personal injury unit at law firm Pannone & Partners, says that although good employers are alert to the risks to staff, 'there are plenty who don't really bother'. She suggests that where an incident is genuinely unpredictable, there is little chance of negligence on the part of the employer and therefore little incentive to train staff. The question is 'how much did an employer really know? If I, for example, sent a junior in alone to interview an emotionally disturbed client, I could be putting him or her at risk, and could be held negligent.'
The law gets more complicated when employees take on suspected criminals and this may help shed some light on the reticence of some companies to get involved with training. Dawes explains: 'If an employee brings a fleeing shoplifter down with a flying tackle and the shoplifter dies from a broken skull, someone will probably be prosecuted for manslaughter. If company policy is that employees are not to engage in violent struggle with shoplifters, the employee could be prosecuted. But if a company supports the employee's actions, that is corporate manslaughter.'
Violence is of course seen among colleagues as well as between customer and employee. David Mattes, press officer for the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Services (ACAS), has had plenty of experience of more traditional clashes - those between management and unions: 'With collective conciliation we are dealing with a lot of emotion; often we need to keep unions and management groups in separate rooms.' A neutral third party is sometimes essential to avoid industrial conflict boiling over into something nastier. 'If the aggressor realises that a neutral body is prepared to listen, he will often calm down a bit,' adds Mattes.
For those employees without the benefit of his training, Fox concludes with some brief but common sense advice: 'Be aware of what you say; keep cool, but don't touch and don't get too close. Any hint of laughter - even a smile - could antagonise the aggressor. And if they have a weapon, just do as they say.'