Protective Vests

Where a work role entails a serious risk of employees being stabbed or shot, employers will have a duty to minimise the risks. One ‘risk reduction’ measure available is protective vests and growing numbers of organisations are now issuing employees with protective vests.

For example: Police; Cash in Transit Security Guards; NHS Hospital Security Guards; Door Supervisors; Housing Workers(April 2004); NHS Ambulance Services (Oct 2005); Traffic Wardens and Community Safety Officers (June 2006) and (May 2007) even Litter Collectors!

Don’t rush into it!

Significant implications accompany the provision of protective vests to employees and it’s not a decision that should be taken lightly. Just blindly copying trends in industry practice is likley to result in problems. Without extensive ‘in practice’ trialling and diligent ‘performance evaluation’ of a safety measure, introducing it is likley to be a costly journey up a cul-de-sac!

Ask yourself “Where will it end?”

Protective vests only protect SOME of the vital areas of the body!

The need to issue a stab proof vest would imply a need to issue protective headware too.

Well, wouldn’t it?

So, are you going to issue your staff with NATO style helmets too?

If you’re not, how will you justify your decision now and in the future?

Is there a need to consider protective vests?

S.3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations requires employers to conduct a suitable and sufficient Risk Assessment of all hazards to health. So, where it exists, a threat of stabbing or shooting will need to be included in the assessment – along with details of the measures being employed to minimise the risks.

Employers are also expected to be familiar with and to keep up to date with developments in measures available to minimise risk – and no employer could reasonably claim not to know of the availability of protective vests.

Must employers provide them?

The law does not prescribe measures that employers must take to reduce the risks of violent attacks on staff.

However, failing to provide protective vests to employees carrying out recognisably ‘high risk’ tasks may be regarded by the courts as an indefensible omission – especially if it has become accepted as the ‘industry norm’ to do so (e.g. Cash in Transit Security Guards).

In Henser-Leather v Securicor Cash Services Limited (2002), a security guard successfully argued that in failing to provide him with body armour his employer had been in breach of their statutory duty.

First, define the nature of the risk(s)

It is important to define the nature of the risks being faced (and therefore the level of protection required) before searching for solutions.

What kinds of attack can reasonably be envisaged?

  • Slashing style attack with a sharp edged weapon
  • Stabbing style attack with a pointed/spiked instrument (knife, shim, ice pick, needle)
  • Accidental discharge of a handgun in close proximity to an employee
  • Deliberate discharge of a handgun at an employee from close range
  • Accidental discharge of a rifle or other high powered weapon in close proximity to the employee
  • Deliberate discharge of a rifle or other high powered weapon at an employee from a distance

Don’t forget to scope the risk of harm from ‘anxiety’

It would be an error to restrict Risk Assessment to the likelihood of serious injury resulting from incidents actually happening. Because, besides the physical and psychological effects of an actual attack, the ‘risks’ include the potential for employees to suffer high levels of anxiety (and subsequently ill health) about potential victimisation. Feeling at risk and vulnerable is bound to have a negative influence on an employee’s work performance and, if nothing is done to improve the situation, will inevitably devalue their enjoyment of their job and ultimately their willingness to carry on doing it. Hence, the high turnover of staff in jobs where violence is prevalent!

And, the danger of ‘back pain’

HSE Operational Circular 334/4 to their Field Operations Directorate Inspectors, describes the application of health and safety legislation to the police service and states: “The weight of some types of body armour has given rise to complaints of back pain after prolonged use, and the more rigid designs, (typically those intended for stab resistance), have caused discomfort, particularly for female officers.”

On the other hand, some users with back trouble have actually welcomed the ‘extra support’ their protective vest gave them.

What is the likelihood of occurrence of the identified attacks?

In the case of Koonjul v Thameslink Healthcare Services [2000] PIQR P123, CA, Judge LJ Hale said “… there has to be a real risk and not just a mere possibility of danger ….. there must be a real risk, a foreseeable possibility of injury; certainly nothing approaching a probability … ‘

Will a protective vest actually reduce these risks?

Protective vests were originally introduced to protect law enforcement personnel against bullets. The ‘vests’ were intended to be worn covertly (i.e. not visible) and so provide an element of surprise in a ‘close up’ encounter – because in such situations, it would be reasonable to presume, an aggressor would probably aim at the ‘biggest area’ of the target (i.e. the chest and abdomen) – the ‘protected area’. If the protective vest is worn overtly (i.e. clearly visible) then, unless the ‘contact’ occurs at some distance, it must be reasonable to presume that any gunshots will be aimed at unprotected areas. If the vest is clearly visible and the assault is with a knife (it must be up close!) it would be likely that the attacker would aim at unprotected areas (and this is what seems to have happened in the case of the fatal stabbing of PC Jonathan Charles Henry on the 11th June 2007). Prior to that, in December 2006, rookie PC Rachel Brown was seriously injured after being shot answering a burglary alert in Nottingham. The 23-year-old was wearing the new design of protective vest, cut short to aid mobility, but the bullet entered her lower stomach. In August 2006, PC Peter Doherty was stabbed in the chest with a crowbar by a burglar in Bedworth, Warwickshire. The crowbar entered PC Doherty’s left side in an area not protected by his stab vest, penetrating his abdominal cavity. He had to have two operations and have his spleen removed but made a recovery and returned to work 8 months later. In November 2005, WPC Sharon Beshenivsky was shot and killed attending a report of a burglary at a travel agent in Bradford. The bullet passed through the edge of her body armour where there was no protection.

So, it seems that if you issue a protective vest that is going to be worn overtly, what you gain is likely to be limited to ‘reducing the fear of victimisation’ and avoidance of an accusation of a failure of ‘due diligence’ in the event of an adverse incident happening.

What are the results of research that has been done?

There does not appear to be any official UK figures available to the public!

However, the USA based Kevlar Survivors Club which was set up in 1973 by the International Association of Chiefs of Police in partnership with the DuPont Company – and comprises officers who have survived potentially fatal and/or disabling injuries through the use of body armour – claims that more than 3,100 officer lives have been saved by wearing body armour.

How much do protective vests cost?

Well, prices vary – but, as an example, in their Protective Vest Evaluation, (2003) the West Midlands Ambulance Service Trust approximated the cost of purchasing a protective vest with 2 additional covers and a storage bag at £350.

What’s a life worth?

According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the estimated cost of an officer’s death is $1.3 million. This figure is based on funeral expenses, death and pension benefits and the cost to a department to hire and train a replacement officer.

In their Protective Vest Evaluation, (2003) the West Midlands Ambulance Service Trust say the cost of losing one of our members of staff is invaluable.

How do the staff feel?

Consulting with ‘frontline’ staff is an essential and mandatory (although often missing) component of the Health & Safety Risk Assessment process.

It may be what some employees think they want!

It’s only natural that employees whose work involves a real or perceived risk of being stabbed or shot will look to the Police for risk reduction solutions (and then pressure their employers to supply them with the same protective measures issued to officers.) This is particularly true where the employees work alongside police.

But, copying the police it is not always the best thing to do!

Well, is it?

Just think how inappropriate the Officer Safety ‘Practical Skills’ are for use by carers working with kids or the elderly.

Are staff adequately appraised?

It is quite possible that staff who request protective vests are not fully aware of the limitations of the equipment or the associated ‘difficulties’ for wearers. If they were aware, they would probably alter their perspective and start campaigning for other kinds of measures instead.

No protective vest offers complete protection!

Whilst protective vests can offer protection against some kinds of attack, no manufacturer claims that a user will be completely protected against injury in the event of being attacked.

Protective vests only protect SOME of the vital areas of the body!

Also, bullet resistant vests are not necessarily stab proof and stab proof vests are not necessarily bullet proof or slash proof!

Protection comes in grades

Protection comes in various grades – and thicknesses. The higher the level of protection the thicker the vest

Bullet proof vests can be thin, quite light, reasonably comfortable to wear for several hours at a time – and concealable.

Stab-Resistance makes the vest stiffer, heavier (and therefore less comfortable) and also less concealable.

Selecting the right level of protection is crucial

It is a serious mistake to select protective armour at levels higher than the actual threat because the higher the protection level, the thicker and more uncomfortable the armour becomes and the more uncomfortable it is to wear the more resistance there’ll be to wearing it! And, that can lead to tragedy.

For example, the case of Met Police Officer Nina Mackay who was stabbed to death in 1997 during the execution of a warrant at a suspects home. Her role had been to ‘open the door’ and she had removed her protective vest to gain freedom of movement whilst she used the ‘door opening’ equipment.

John O’Connor, former head of Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad, said: “If officers are going out on an ambush or to arrest a violent criminal, they would be stupid and in neglect of their duties not to wear protective body armour.”

However, Sir Paul Condon, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said at a subsequent news conference “It would seem as if Nina did earlier have her protective vest on, but tragically she was not wearing it when she entered the building. We do not interpret this as a criticism. Clearly, it was a very restricted space with limited access and I have no doubt this officer was doing her very best.”

Armour worn overtly may actually increase the risk of attack

The sight of employees wearing protective vests may adversly affect the attitude (and subsequent behaviour) of potential assailants. If a protective vest is worn overtly (i.e. in full view) it could send a message that it’s OK to act out their aggression and attack – because the member of staff seems to be protected.

‘Blunt Trauma’ Protection

Protective vests are designed to absorb a lot of the energy of an impact. But ultimately there will be a transfer of force to the wearer’s body. This force is known as blunt trauma. In order to minimise the injurious effects of ‘blunt trauma’, vests needs to be a good fit. A badly fitting vest may mean a high risk of danger from ‘bunt trauma’ in the event of an assault.

There have been problems producing a protective vest that is ideal for women to wear

The West Midlands Ambulance Service NHS Trust’s Protective Vest Evaluation states that the biggest difficulty encountered was the female breastplate – staff felt that this was inappropriate in design.

Other safety issues to consider

  • The ‘bulkiness’ of a stab proof vest could be an encumbrance if a knife attack takes place in a confined space.
  • Wearing a bulky vest could interfere with the wearer’s ability to safely carry out certain kinds of work processes (e.g. below waist level tasks) by impeding their line of sight.
  • The weight (and plastic casing) of protective vests mean that body temperature could increase by 5° F, providing an ideal environment for skin disorders to flourish.
  • Prolonged use of protective vests entails a further risk of staff suffering effects of overheating*

* Note: Special undershirts can be purchased that ‘wick’ sweat moisture towards ventilated areas (normally at the sides of the vest.) But, a ‘ventilated area’ won’t be as well protected as it could be!


Most vests on the market are guaranteed for 5 years and some have passed tests that show their protective qualities have not diminished years past their ‘sell by date’. However, other vests have degraded quite rapidly after exposure to heat, humidity, light, in-service flex, and general wear – resulting in the vests losing their protective qualities.

…. “Toyobo has acknowledged Zylon may lose 20% of its strength within just two years”….In several cases around the country vests less than a year old have failed.”…. “Bullets have penetrated and caused critical injuries to police officers.”


Issuing a formal requirement to always wear the PPE?

The weight and bulk of protective vests can discourage full-time use. If the risk of attack is constant, employers will have to consider issuing a formal requirement to staff to always wear the equipment – and also take active steps to enforce the instructions in order to avoid liability for adverse outcomes.

Making it a formal requirement to wear this kind of PPE was something that the court decided was necessary in the case of Henser-Leather v Securicor Cash Services Limited (2002) – see “Must employers provide them?” above.

What effect will wearing a protective vest have on the mindset of the wearer?

“There were concerns it would make staff more likely to take risks, but there’s no evidence at all to back that up. It’s like saying that because your car has airbags, you’re going to take risks when you’re driving.” said Jonathan Fox of the Association of Professional Ambulance Personnel (APAP) following trials of protective vests. However, it stands to reason that wearing a protective vest – and feeling protected – may encourage a wearer to remain at a dangerous scene when they might otherwise have departed. After all, isn’t it the ‘protection of a protective vest’ that is ‘encouraging’ the employees to continue working?

Not knowing the equipment’s limitations could lead employees into danger.

Information to wearers

Staff must be told in clear terms the limitations are of the protection they are wearing.

It is essential that employees fully appreciate that there is no such thing as totally bulletproof armour and keep firmly in mind that the protective vest they’ve been issued with was selected on the basis of a compromise between protection and comfort.

And, there you have it.

So, hold your fire!