Be Prepared

Protecting yourself effectively against violence at work begins with ‘arming yourself’ with knowledge and understanding.

Unfortunately, for the most part:

  1. You can’t rely on the HSE (or any other Government Inspectorate body) to ensure that your employer maintains safe working conditions.
  2. Most employers don’t make safety improvements unless the circumstances mean they absolutely have to, (typically only after a serious injury incident has happened.)
  3. Most managers, it would seem, prefer to let employees face the risks and suffer rather than risk invoking their CEO’s wrath by requesting extra expenditure on safety measures for the staff – even when the need to do so is obvious.
  4. Most Safety Reps are comfortable in their jobs and won’t want to ‘rock the boat’ by insisting on safety improvements that are being demanded by just one employee, even if the demand is fully justified.
  5. Many employees prefer to face extremes of personal danger rather than contest the adequacy of safety arrangements with their manager.

Take personal control

You must take responsibility for your own safety and well-being at work.

Prioritise your ’emotional security’

We’re all different but, we all share a basic need to feel safe and secure in order to stay healthy and well. The extent to which we feel the need to be secure varies between individuals. Some people cope better than others in certain kinds of situations and some people get alarmed quicker and some worry more and for longer than others.

You will know whether or not you are the kind of person who stays unaffected by verbal abuse and calm and composed in threatening situations. Maybe you positively welcome and thrive on the responsibility of handling them and, if you are, that’s great. If you’re not, you need to focus on fulfilling ‘your need to feel safe’ – otherwise your enjoyment of your job, the quality of your work performance and ultimately your health will suffer. Don’t underestimate it. Upset and worry caused by violence at work leads to unhappiness at work and at home. It can put a real strain on family and friend relationships – and stress is a killer!

Put the risks of serious assault into perspective

Every violent incident has the potential to result in very serious injury and even death; and this and the fact that violence can happen anywhere at any time is a major concern for a lot of people. But, the indisputable fact is, the vast majority of workplace assaults do not result in very serious injury, let alone death and, in many cases, the high level of anxiety being endured may be unwarranted. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the risk of assault seriously, but it should help you get a better perspective of the risks and give you reason to worry less.

Probably the greatest danger to health lies in allowing anxieties, tension and stress to build up from unresolved ‘in house’ conflicts.

Be clear about expectations of you

Know your organisation’s Policies, Organisational Structure, Procedures, Staff Code of Conduct and Rules & Regulations back to front and inside out.

You should know what constitutes a Reportable Violent Incident for your organisation’s purposes and where to go to fill out a report and who to make it to and what he procedure is if you are dissatisfied with the response you get.

Everyone (your employer, colleagues, the public – and the courts) expects you to be up to the job and to without delay inform your employer of anything affecting your ability to carry out your role safely and effectively.

The courts, employment tribunals and insurance companies expect you to always behave as an ‘ordinary cautious person’ and not to put yourself at any unnecessary risk – and may criticise and penalise you if you do.

Nobody can legitimately expect you to have to tolerate mistreatment, verbal abuse, threats, intimidation or assault and no-one can legitimately expect you to keep working in unsafe circumstances.

You are expected to withdraw if you suspect a danger exists that you can’t handle.

Know the history of violent incidents at your workplace

If your workplace has suffered from violent incidents in the past find out where they happened, why they happened and who was involved – so that, as far as possible, a repetition can be avoided.

Be aware of the danger areas of your workplace

‘Not so safe’ areas exist in all workplaces. Some areas may present an increased risk of physical violence happening because of the number of people congregated there and the nature and quality of processes being carried out. Other areas may, increase vulnerability to serious assault in the event of an attack (but, not necessarily an increased risk of occurrence) because of the absence of people nearby and able to help. For example: Shared staff and public toilets; badly lit stair wells, the car park, areas not covered by CCTV etc.

Find out where the ‘Danger Areas’ are in your workplace and, as far as possible, try to limit the time you spend there.

Know who the dangerous people are!

Whilst, everyone you interact with at work is a potential perpetrator of workplace violence, some people are more likely to behave violently than others. You need to know who these people are so you can take appropriate precautionary measures when you are going to be with them.

The Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations 1996 require employers to (in good time) inform and consult with employees on matters relating to their health and safety. The regulations also make it a statutory obligation that employers inform employees of all the risks to their health from hazards known to affect the workplace and also any increase in the level of risk of harm to their health.

A history of violent behaviour is a robust predictor of future violence – so you have a ‘right’ to be told if the information is known (or should be known) to your organisation.

Know the characteristics – and sensitivities – of your clients, your colleagues and your boss!

Appreciating ‘difficulties’ being experienced by your ‘clients’ can help you to understand why they might behave badly and help you to keep a caring attitude to them.

Personal knowledge of another person’s character, abilities, traits and sensitivities can also help you to avoid doing something that is likely to provoke a negative response from them.

Having good relations with a person may not prevent them assaulting you – but it helps! And, knowing how a person usually behaves can help you to detect changes which indicate agitation and give an opportunity to prevent escalation.

Calling for assistance

You need to know how best to call for back up from colleagues, security and/or the police.

Be acutely aware of just how early you need to call for back up for it to be useful to you and keep in mind what help the assistance will be if and when it arrives. Don’t overstretch!

Know how to use safety equipment

It’s very important that you know how to operate ‘safety equipment’ competently. This includes, Personal Attack Alarms; In House Panic Alarms; Personal Radios.

Do your own personal ‘Risk Assessment’ of your duties

Try to picture yourself in different parts of your workplace and ask yourself:

  • What would you do if someone becomes abusive and threatening towards you?
  • How would you react if somebody becomes physically violent to you – or someone else?
  • Who would help you?
  • In ‘real time’ terms how far away is Police / Security assistance?
  • Can you rely on other employees helping meanwhile?
  • To what extent?
  • How likely are such incidents to happen?
  • Could the risks be reduced?
  • How?

If the exercise raises (or confirms) concerns, inform your line manager/safety representative without delay – and be ready to suggest suitable safety improvements!

If you have serious concerns that still remain after reporting to your line manager/safety representative, put the report in writing to make it official.

First impressions count

Creating the right first impression is essential, especially in jobs involving brief interactions with members of the public.

A clean, tidy appearance and an alert confident manner presents an image of competence that can help to dissuade people against resorting to violence. So are looking and being fit.

Adopt a ‘positive care’ attitude

Approaching your work with the fixed intention of helping people to resolve difficulties, being prepared to be patient, receptive and understanding and expecting a hostile response, is a good step towards exerting control during incidents where people have become angry/upset and potentially violent.

This is because a person’s attitude is reflected subconsciously in their body language, manner and behaviour.

If the message you’re giving out is that you ‘care’ it is likely to be responded to in a positive way.

Keep a ‘positive care’ attitude

Keeping a positive care attitude towards some of the people you have to deal with can be challenging and it may help to consider them in a different way. Try to see people who have lost control of their emotions and composure as representing a danger to themselves and others and, as such, requiring care and support.

Resolve to avoid becoming aggressive

Becoming aggressive in response to an angry person threatening you is understandable (after all nature’s bottom line is fight or flight). But, it will (at a subconscious level) be transmitted to and interpreted by the other party as a threat – with the likely effect of upping the ante and increasing the likelihood of an attack.

Be a ‘Peacemaker’

Certain individuals seem to possess an innate ability to ‘talk people down’ from becoming violent and are far more likely to achieve a peaceable result than their colleagues.

An examination of the qualities of these individuals would show them to be: Friendly and approachable; understanding; calm, controlled and unhurried; knowledgeable about workplace procedures; experienced and respectful of the rights of others.

Copying the skills that these people have shown to work can improve your ability to deal with hostile individuals and achieve peaceful resolutions.

Always think, before you act

To avoid criticism any and all action you take should have the objective of maximising safety.

If, to take a particular course of action is likely to result in serious harm then YOU must weigh up the likely consequences with the need to take the action, justified against the likely consequences of not proceeding with it and the availability of other workable alternatives.

You are expected to choose the course of action which results in the least adverse outcome.

As in Fire Drill, and First Aid practice – always consider your own personal safety first.

Stay Safe

If you take an obvious and recognisable risk and you get injured, any compensation award may be reduced in proportion to how significantly your own actions contributed to the severity of the outcome i.e. on the basis of ‘contributory negligence’.

In some cases, actions may be regarded as ‘volenti non fit injuria’, which effectively means that you ‘volunteered’ to take the (obvious) risks i.e. notwithstanding the risk of injury – meaning compensation will be very limited indeed.

When to withdraw

Everybody is different and the way a person may behave towards or respond to you can never be predicted with 100% certainty. Make a habit of always optimising your personal safety and, if anything, err on the side of caution.

Fortitude varies from person to person and so does ability to cope with other people’s violent behaviour. Where some people would feel unsafe and vulnerable others may not. This means uncertainty about when refusing to do a job task may be the ‘right thing’ for an employee to do.

Helpfully, S44.1.(d) Employment Rights Act 1996 provides a clear definition of the circumstances in which employees are expected to withdraw:

“… circumstances of danger which the employee reasonably believed to be serious and imminent and which they could not reasonably have been expected to avert.”

S44 also makes it clear that the legal expectation of employees is that they should stay away from work altogether if that is what is required to remain safe and not return to work until the danger has gone.

How will an employee’s actions will be judged?

S44.1.(d) Employment Rights Act 1996 confirms that the action taken by employees to protect themselves will be judged:

” …. by reference to all the circumstances including, in particular, his (the employee) knowledge and the facilities and advice available to him at the time.”

In other words, it is very much up to the employee to decide when it would be best to withdraw.

If you ever feel that withdrawing from threatening circumstances is the safest thing for you to do, then do it immediately and, as soon as you can, call for back-up and the Police.

It is common sense in the face of overwhelming odds, to leave and to regroup before re engaging.

Use of reasonable force

The use of physical force should always be regarded as the ‘last resort’ in the hierarchy of options available to you in any situation, but everyone has a legal right to defend themselves, if it becomes reasonably necessary.

English Law permits citizens, in certain circumstances, to use physical force on another person without it amounting to an offence of assault. For example: to protect themselves or another; prevent a crime; arrest an offender; eject a trespasser. However, in every case, the law requires that the level of force used must be no more than ‘reasonably necessary’ in the circumstances and proportionate to the severity of the harm or ‘wrong’ being prevented.

Reasonably necessary

Lord Morris in Palmer v. R [1971] stated:

“It is both good law and good sense that that a man who is attacked may defend himself…..but may only do what is reasonably necessary …”

Sir James Stephens stated in the Digest of the Criminal Law (1887) that the Common Law ‘doctrine of necessity’ could be described in the following manner:

‘An act which would otherwise be a crime may in some cases be excused if the person accused can show that it was done only in order to avoid consequences which could not otherwise be avoided and which, if they had followed, would have inflicted upon him or others whom he was bound to protect inevitable and irreparable evil, that no more was done than was reasonably necessary for that purpose, and that the evil inflicted by it was not disproportionate to the evil avoided’.

In the circumstances

Whether or not the level of force used was more than was reasonably necessary (i.e. excessive) in the circumstances, is always going to be a matter of opinion and what the ‘accused’ believed is crucial. A court must always consider a case on the basis of the circumstances as the accused honestly believed them to be, unless the jury decides it would have been totally unreasonable for the accused to have honestly held the belief.

The jury must then go on to ask themselves whether, on the basis of the facts as the accused believed them to be, a reasonable person would regard the force used as reasonable or excessive.

To convict a person of using unreasonable force, a court must be satisfied that no reasonable person in a similar position would have considered such use of force justified.

In R. v Beckford [1988] the court ruled: “If no more (force) is used than is reasonable to repel the attack such force is not unlawful and no crime is committed.”

Striking first can be lawful

In R.v.Beckford [1988] the court ruled:

“… a man about to be attacked does not have to wait for his assailant to strike the first blow or fire the first shot, circumstances may justify a pre-emptive strike.”

Gauging the level of force

You are not expected to be able to make fine judgement over the level of force you use in the heat of the moment.

In Palmer v. R [1971], Lord Morris stated:

“If there has been an attack so that defence is reasonably necessary, it will be recognised that a person defending himself cannot weigh to a nicety the exact measure of his defensive action.”

As a general rule, the more extreme the circumstances, the more force you can lawfully use.

Before you can be charged with unlawful use of force, there would have to be evidence that a grossly disproportionate amount of force had been used; and before you can be convicted, a court would have to conclude that no reasonable person would have used that much force.

Acting instinctively

In Palmer v. R [1971] it was stated:

“If, in a moment of unexpected anguish a person had done what he honestly and instinctively thought was necessary, that would be most potent evidence that only reasonable defensive action had been taken.”

As long as you only do what you honestly and instinctively believe is necessary in the circumstances, that would be the strongest evidence of you acting lawfully.

The most powerful defence?

The most powerful way to protect against attack is by being and remaining calm, friendly, approachable, unhurried and interested to help!