Violence at work – Employers’ Legal Obligations

Please note: The information in this section is intended to provide readers with a basic understanding of employers’ duties in relation to violence at work. It is not and doesn’t purport to be the definitive ‘final word’ on the subject.

All employers have a Common Law duty to care

All legal entities (i.e. Organisations) and the people who own and run them have a Common Law ‘duty’ to take reasonable care to avoid actions or omissions which could reasonably be foreseen as being likely to result in or contribute to ‘a wrong’ happening to someone else * (including financial harm as well as physical and psychological harm.)

* “…. persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question.” decided Lord Atkin in the case of Donoghue v Stevenson 1932.

Employers’ legal obligations under Common Law have been summarised by the HSE as a duty to take reasonable care to:

1. Lay down a safe system of work;

2. Provide safe premises and/or place of work;

3. Provide safe plant and equipment

This has been interpreted as including a duty to protect staff from violent attack, providing competent staff, safe plant and equipment, a safe system of work, and effective instruction, training and supervision of employees. Employers duties in Common Law are not limited to just protecting their own employees, they must take reasonable steps to avoid harm happening to anyone who could be classed as a ‘neighbour’.

Employer obligations in Contract Law

A contract of employment imposes two significant obligations on an employer which exist whether or not they are explicit in the contract and regardless of the organisation or the type of work being undertaken. They are:

1. The employer must provide ‘trust and support’ to the employee in carrying out their role.

2. The employer must provide a workplace in which employees are subjected to minimal exposure to risk (and it is well established that workplace violence should be regarded as a risk in this context.)

Employers are also expected to respond to issues of perceived risk as well as real risk. This duty was illustrated in the case of Keys v Shoe Fayre Ltd [1978] IRLR 476, where the employee, Keys, was required to take money to the bank. She was worried about being mugged as there had been a number of muggings in the area. She refused to go to the bank and was consequently sacked. It was held that the employer had failed in its obligation of trust and support; the employee’s concerns had not been taken seriously, nor had alternative methods of getting the money to the bank been explored. In these circumstances there had been a breach of contract.

An employer’s failure to provide appropriate support might also reach a point where an employee can no longer tolerate the working conditions and decides to leave. This could be construed as