Abused, threatened and assaulted | How employers can protect retail staff from violence

A new survey has found that retail workers are, on average, abused, threatened or assaulted 21 times a year.

Jackie McKenzie, a petrol station worker, reported being abused on a daily basis. Ms McKenzie said that the amount of abuse she has faced in her job has risen over the last 20 years, commenting: “It’s getting a bit out of hand to be honest”.

Telling a similar story, convenience store worker, Michelle Whitehead, said: “It’s terrible to say but you get used to being threatened. When someone comes and shouts at you, it does affect you. Sometimes you have to walk away from the counter and count to 10 so you don’t burst into tears”. Ms Whitehead, who has worked in retail for almost three decades, said that she used to receive abuse from customers once in a while but it now happens on a weekly basis.

Although neither Ms Whitehead or Ms McKenzie have been assaulted, both say they have witnessed violent workplace attacks. The women are now campaigning for retailers and the government to make changes so that staff feel safer at work.

They are calling for:

Signs to be put up in stores instructing customers to respect staff.
More police on patrol.
Retailers to impose a life-time ban on customers who persistently abuse shopworkers.

The survey of over 4,000 retail staff by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (Usdaw), shows that the two ladies are far from alone. In fact, it found that around two-thirds of workers had experienced verbal abuse, while 41% were threatened by a customer and nearly 5% assaulted.

Usdaw has long been campaigning to stop abusive behaviour towards staff and in mid-2019 called on the government to tackle the growing problem.

0 %
of retail workers have been threatened by a customer

Mental health consequences

A report published in September by City, University of London, says that a rise in violent retail crime is causing “long-lasting anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder”. PTSD is more commonly seen in the armed forces.

The report collated data from the Home Office, British Retail Consortium, Association of Convenience Stores and Usdaw. It found shopworkers experienced “severe mental health consequences” as a result of violent store crime. 

The report’s author, Dr Emmeline Taylor, stressed that government action is urgently needed to protect staff. Dr Taylor, who is a criminologist studying the effect of store crime on workers, said: “All too frequently, shopworkers are suffering physical injuries, as well as chronic and life-changing mental health consequences of violence”.

Her research identified four main causes in which violence and abuse are becoming widespread:

  • Encountering shoplifters.
  • Enforcing age-restrictions on the sale of goods.
  • Hate-crime related incidents.
  • Armed and unarmed robberies.

A former retail worker, who now helps staff to overcome traumatic events, told researchers that in the last 12 months, she knew of colleagues who had been “physically injured with axes, needles, machetes and knives”. She states: “I know of colleagues that have been dragged through their store, who have had knives held to their throats, or been made to kneel down with guns or other weapons held at their head. They have been screamed at, threatened, and left scared to travel home from work”.

Troubling statistics

Home Office data reveals that assaults and threats against retail staff rose from 524 incidents per 1,000 premises in 2016 to 1,433 in 2017. Assaults and threats toward retail and wholesale staff are estimated to be at the highest level since 2012, with around two fifths (39%) of violent incidents resulting in injury according to the 2018 Crime Report by the Association of Convenience Stores.

Indeed, Dr Taylor says: “Multiple data sources show that the frequency and severity of violence towards shopworkers is increasing”. She describes the rising number of crimes against shopworkers as having reached “epidemic” proportions. She comments: “The strain of constant abuse and fear of physical violence is causing some shopworkers to change their shift pattern, their place of work or, in the worst cases, terminate their employment entirely”.

Earlier this year, a crime survey by the British Retail Consortium recorded more than 42,000 assaults or threats in the sector in 2018, with 115 retail workers physically attacked every day, and many more verbally abused and threatened.

Retailers’ duties

As an employer, you are required by law to carry out a risk assessment to determine whether violence is a problem for your staff and business, and how matters can be improved. The assessment will also help you to come up with a policy and procedure(s) for dealing with violence, which should form part of your business’ wider Health & Safety Policy.

Under the Health & Safety at Work etc Act 1974, you have a legal duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of staff. This duty includes all forms of work-related violence, which the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines as “any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work”.

This means:

Physical violence, including kicking, spitting, hitting or pushing, as well as more extreme violence with weapons.
Verbal abuse, including shouting, swearing or insults; racial or sexual abuse, or threats and intimidation.

The risk of violence in the same way as any other possible cause of harm in the workplace, such as slips and trips and lifting heavy loads.

5 top tips for protecting retail workers from violence

The best time to address workplace violence is before any incidents occur. A good way to do this is by developing a violence prevention plan, which should identify potential risks in your business and describe the controls to be used to deal with those risks.

Be sure to consult your staff, as they will often have better insight into potential problems and ideas for how to solve them.

This may include:

  • Clear sightlines, both inside and outside the store. For example, by using low shelving or mirrors, or by positioning sales counters near windows so that employees can see out and the public can see in.
  • Barriers such as wider counters or plexiglass partitions that separate employees from customers.
  • Product placement. Discourage shoplifting by placing expensive items behind counters or in locked display.
  • Good lighting.

Redesigning may be a low-cost option that allows for better visibility so that customers and cash tills can be seen more clearly.

Warning signs on premises can be used to highlight the deterrent measures in operation at your store, including:

  • “Cash in time-lock safe”.
  • “Security cameras in use”.
  • “Shoplifters will be prosecuted”.

All employees should be given specific training on workplace violence so that they are aware of the potential workplace security hazards and the procedure to follow in the event of an incident.

You should also:

  • Provide specific written procedures for lone working.
  • Provide specific written procedures for higher-risk situations, such as opening, closing and cashing out.
  • Evaluate employee scheduling. Consider how many employees are on shift and who they are.

Need a helping hand?

At Ellis Whittam, we help organisations across the UK to create safe working environments and operate compliantly through sensible risk-reducing measures.

Our qualified Health & Safety Consultants provide competent support with all aspects of health and safety management, including protecting workers from the risk of violence. Our fixed-fee service gives you access to unlimited practical advice, on-site support with risk assessments, a tailored Health & Safety Policy of best-practice procedures, and our award-winning Health & Safety Software to allow you to seamlessly manage and monitor your compliance on a daily basis.

For more information and to talk through your specific requirements, call 0345 226 8383 to speak to one of our friendly team.