‘Violence’ in the workplace includes everything from verbal abuse, pushing and punching to spitting, sexual assault and even stabbing. Whilst stabbings and sexual assault are not an every day occurrence, the others are more common than most people are aware of.  In the third of a series of thought leadership pieces, Daniel Hardy, managing director of National Business Crime Solution (NBCS), examines the scale of the problem specifically in the retail sector, the reasons behind its growth, and what needs to be done to keep employees safe.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines work related violence as ‘any incident in which an employee is abused, threatened or assaulted by a member of the public in circumstances arising out of the course of his/her employment’. The repercussions of such violence can have devastating consequences on the physical and psychological health of those affected. Although the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 states that employers have a legal duty to ensure, so far as it is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees, the measures implemented can often fall very short of what is required.

Risky business

The 2015-16 Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) found that an estimated 1.4 per cent of working adults have been the victims of one or more violent incidents at work, with 350,000 adults having experienced an event of this nature. During this period there were an estimated 698,000 incidents of violence, comprising 329,000 assaults and 369,000 threats.

Employees in the protective service occupations are at highest risk, with healthcare professionals and health and social care specialists also regularly affected. However, those working in the retail sector are increasingly in danger, with the British Retail Consortium’s (BRC) 2017 Retail Crime Survey highlighting that the rate of incidents of violence with injury has doubled since the previous year to six per 1,000 members of staff.

Cause and effect

While these statistics identify a clear and worrying trend, what is just as concerning is the lack of conversation relating to what is causing it.

First of all, shopping habits have changed – this activity is now a daily occurrence and therefore footfall across the retail sector is up, which, in turn, means that the volume of crime has risen. Secondly, the operating model of retail businesses has changed and the number of colleagues working in stores has diminished due to the use of technology such as self-serve tills. While stores that are working smarter and using technology is in many ways a good thing, the big downside is that there is less customer engagement.

Better customer service prevents violence and, as anyone who has had to stand in a long queue will recognise, avoids customer patience wearing thin. However, the prevalence of defensive merchandising and planograms means that high risk or high value items are locked in a cabinet or kept behind the checkout counter, which can frustrate the shopper, may lead to lost sales and could be a contributing driver for violent acts.

Retailers have a responsibility to comply with age related sales legislation relating to products such as alcohol, knives and cigarettes but criminals are increasingly using violence and abuse when challenged – triggering violence and threats. If these points are combined with poor or non-existent confrontation management training, some colleagues could inadvertently exacerbate a problem and inflame potentially volatile situations through a lack of emotional intelligence. This perfect storm means that violence is becoming more commonplace and when it does occur there are too few colleagues on hand who are able to deal with the problem.

Time is not a healer

Reporting crime takes time and therefore an increasing number of retail staff are opting not to do so, as it usually requires internal documentation, dealing with the police and perhaps even liaison with local crime partnerships. In addition, given that The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, makes theft from a shop of goods worth £200 or less a summary-only offence, it seems that retailers are simply not bothering to pursue some cases.

The same often goes for acts of verbal and physical aggression – the former of which has become so normalised that it is often not considered a violent act, just ‘par for the course’. There is also the lack of respect that some people have for authority and this is combined with an awareness that the police are under so much resource pressure that they probably won’t attend all but the most serious incidents.

The issue of inefficient reporting should not be underestimated or ignored, as it creates a situation where the scale of the problem is unclear, so sufficient law enforcement, or security resources cannot be allocated to deal with it. Worryingly, on the subject of reporting incidents, the BRC’s 2016 Retail Crime Survey stated that 56 per cent of retailers questioned thought that that the police service’s performance was either ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.

Taking action

With the rising crime figures and falling police numbers, the frontline of retail clearly has the potential to be a dangerous environment for many shop workers and there is still a lot to do to help protect them. Employers should do all they can to prevent attacks occurring in the first place and, if an event does occur, provide their employees with all the support they need.

Health and safety law applies to risks from violence, just as it does to other risks from work, and as well as the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 state that employers must consider all risks to employees including the possibility of reasonably foreseeable violence, decide how significant these risks are, decide what to do to prevent or control them and develop a clear management plan.

Developing a policy on the management and prevention of violence can help employers avoid costs relating to low staff morale, high absenteeism and staff turnover, expensive insurance premiums and possibly compensation payments. A policy should identify how any risk can be controlled and set out how preventative measures will operate and detail training, changing work patterns, or dealing with specific customer groups. For example, those working in pharmacies will often have to deal with vulnerable people such as drug addicts and the mentally ill, while those in off-licences will sometimes encounter those who abuse alcohol.

Protect and survive

Even though retailers are initiating leaner operational strategies to protect profit margins, the BRC claims that they are also spending record amounts on crime prevention, security and other measures to keep staff safe. It also recognises that this level of financial investment is ultimately unsustainable.

This isn’t really a surprise, as manned guarding can be costly to implement and maintain, as can remote monitoring. Although technology such as lone worker devices and panic buttons have proven to be effective in other sectors, many retailers question whether it is worth investing in them if the police are unlikely to show up when they are activated. Likewise, although civil injunctions and Banning Orders can be used to address antisocial behaviour, they can be costly and time consuming to pursue.

Dare to share

There is certainly a good return on investment argument to be made for the more widespread collaboration between retailers to pool knowledge, share information on best practice, build a safer working community and set up crime prevention initiatives – GDPR is not a blocker to legitimately preventing crime, lowering risks and protecting staff!

By joining forces retailers can also use technology, manned guarding, data acquisition, analytics and information sharing as tools in the battle against workplace violence. This reduces expense for retailers and can facilitate the deployment of a shared resource of highly trained and skilled personnel, who can be notified about an incident, via a smart device, where help is needed and provide an immediate response. Key performance indicators can be agreed in advance and there is the potential for live incident reporting, which can help ensure a police response.

On a related subject, the process regarding the development of Business Improvement Districts must be enhanced. Charging a levy on all ratepayers, in addition to the business rates bill, in order to benefit businesses in the local area has seen a certain level of success, however, as things stand it offers an inconsistent approach to delivering real improvements, as safety and security are not part of the manifesto of a bid. This needs to change and needs to be part of the five yearly renewal process.

Where next?

Physical violence in retail workplaces is increasing year on year and is an issue that is not going to just go away, especially since the wider trends and business strategies in retailing are effectively creating a situation that allows those with aggressive tendencies to become more confident in their ability to act with impunity. Unless decisive action is taken to counter this trend, the consequences could, quite literally, be fatal.

Follow us on Twitter for news and updates: @NBCStweet

Back to news articles