Managing the risk of violence in the workplace

The importance of government agencies protecting workers from acts of violence was highlighted during the pandemic with an apparent rise in aggressive customer behaviour in a range of public environments from health and education facilities, aged care and social services providers.

Recently, in Queensland, a teacher won a compensation claim against the Workers' Compensation Regulator regarding PTSD developed after years of exposure to multiple traumatic events during her period of service as a teacher, including being chased and threatened by students and parents (see Roberts v Workers' Compensation Regulator [2023] QIRC 076 (6 March 2023)).

The issue was also highlighted following a direction from SafeWork SA to a McDonald's restaurant in Adelaide to install safety screens to protect staff from aggressive customers. As reported recently on ABC News, a series of attacks and verbal abuse of staff by customers at a busy McDonald's restaurant was captured on camera which led to complaints by the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association to SafeWork SA. As a result of the complaint, SafeWork had been discussing with the licensee the steps that could be taken to eliminate or reduce the risk of harm. Following the issue of improvement notices, the restaurant installed a series of screens to prevent customers from being able to access staff areas, throw objects or spit at staff.

Managing the risk of violence for government agencies

Although it may be unlikely in all workplaces, many government agency workplaces do have a risk of some form of workplace violence. Schools and hospitals, as well as first responders, have often been an area of concern for workers being placed at risk of workplace violence.

The guidance from SafeWork NSW identifies violence as being:

  • verbal assaults or threats (for example, language that is offensive, degrading, humiliating or discriminatory and which may or may not involve shouting)
  • throwing objects
  • pushing, shoving, tripping, grabbing
  • striking, kicking, scratching, biting, spitting or any other physical contact
  • attacking with knives, guns, clubs or any other type of weapon
  • intimidating behaviour that creates a fear of violence, such as stalking or sexual harassment or threatening to do any of the above
  • hazing or initiation practices for new or young workers
  • gendered violence, where behaviour is directed at any person or affects a person because of their sex, gender or sexual orientation, or because they do not adhere to socially prescribed gender roles, that creates a risk to health and safety.

Government agencies are required to assess whether such a risk exists by consulting with workers, considering claims or incident history in the agency and guidance from other entities operating in similar conditions. Wherever there is direct public or customer interaction, there will almost always be a risk of some kind.

The critical steps to take are:

  • develop systems and protocols for the management of the risk of violence
  • include engineered controls as a higher level of protection for workers, such as screens, guards and duress alarms
  • workplace design, for example management and control of queues and cash handling locations / procedures are also relevant.

Be sure to train all staff in your workplace violence policies so that they are prepared to handle a potentially violent situation. The training should focus on both external and internal sources of threat.

And remember, the obligation is to proactively remove risks. So don't wait for an act of violence to be the trigger to implement controls. The SafeWork NSW's guide to preventing and responding to work-related violence (updated in March 2023) can assist your agency to prevent and respond to work-related violence.

This publication does not deal with every important topic or change in law and is not intended to be relied upon as a substitute for legal or other advice that may be relevant to the reader's specific circumstances. If you have found this publication of interest and would like to know more or wish to obtain legal advice relevant to your circumstances please contact one of the named individuals listed.