Sharp rise in abuse towards customer facing workers

Staff Safety in the workplace

 

Hostility and aggression towards public facing workers is on the rise across the UK. With 61% of the UK’s workforce in public facing roles, protecting these workers form verbal abuse, intimidation, threats of violence and even physical harm is fast becoming a key challenge for business owners who are responsible for staff safety in the workplace.

As a leading remote security monitoring station, Farsight is increasingly working with employers to deliver worker protection solutions to give staff the peace of mind that they are not facing these types of situations alone, and help is never far way. When looking at the statistics provided by Industry Associations representing customer facing workers, it is not hard to see that this type of abuse facing frontline workers on a daily basis has got out of hand.

Associations representing workers and businesses across multiple sectors all paint a similar picture – these including healthcare and public services through to customer service, retail, distributive and manufacturing service sectors. Many of these organisations have been raising awareness on this issue and calling for change.

Let’s look at some of the worrying statistics that have been revealed across some of these customer facing industry sectors:

Healthcare

Protecting Healthcare workers

 

On 29th November 2021 the Nursing Times published this headline: Staff member stabbed at London hospital amid ‘rising levels of violence’. The acting chief nurse of this London hospital trust has warned of “rising levels” of violence and aggression towards staff.

Indeed, NHS Staff Survey figures published in March 2021 revealed that amongst NHS staff who have frequent face-to-face contact with patients/service users, more than one in three (35.4%)  claim to have experienced at least one incident of bullying, harassment or abuse from patients / service users, their relatives or other members of the public in the last 12 months.

This figure rose significantly to 48.4% for ambulance staff reporting bullying or abuse and almost 60% for community based health workers.

The survey also showed that an average of 14.5% NHS employees reported at least one incident of physical violence in the last 12 months, again rising to 33.4% for ambulance services.

Lone workers like ambulance and staff based in the community can be significantly more at risk. Ass such employers must assess the risks from lone working activities and take measures to reduce the risk of injury and harm including violence and abuse. For more on ‘lone worker protection’ read our article: Lone worker protection: Helping to keep keyworkers safe

A Royal College of Midwives (RCM) survey also found that seven out of ten midwives have experienced abuse. Birte Harlev-Lam, Executive Director for Professional Leadership at the Royal College of Midwives, said:

“Now more than ever, keeping everyone safe has to be a priority. That applies to pregnant women, their babies and, of course, the maternity staff taking care of them.”

The results from a survey of 2,400 doctors carried out by the British Medical Association (BMA) in July and  published by the Nursing Times found that more than a third of doctors have faced verbal attacks from patients or visitors, while just over a quarter have witnessed violence or abuse against their nursing colleagues.

According to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Nursing staff encounter a range of potential hazards, often on a daily basis, but few are as distressing and difficult to manage as violence. Verbal abuse from patients and the public can be equally as distressing as a physical assault.

Staff have a right to be safe at work irrespective of whether based in hospitals, in the community or other healthcare premises. Employers are required by law to identify hazards to which staff are exposed and take all reasonably practicable steps to eradicate or minimise them. These include:

  • improvements to the physical environment
  • alarms systems
  • signage
  • safe staffing levels
  • training for staff.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) cites violent and aggressive incidents as the third biggest cause of injuries reported under RIDDOR from the health and social care sector. Employers and employees should work together to establish systems to prevent or reduce aggressive behaviour.

Public services

Public Services staff abuse

 

Figures revealed recently by UNISON, the public services union, at their 2021 Virtual Special Local Government Service Group Conference showed that instances of aggression and intimidating and threatening behaviour are increasing sharply – with the most recent data showing a 25% increase in recorded violent incidents against local government workers in the UK since 2015.

UNISON has conducted branch surveys and freedom of information requests which show that this problem is only getting worse and that many local government staff do not feel their employer is doing enough to tackle it.

In some local government services, the problem is particularly severe – a recent survey of library workers across the UK found that 85% of members reported an increase in violence and abuse towards the workforce and 92% reported an increase in difficult or challenging service users. Conference believes that the increase in violence at work is linked to both austerity and an increased climate of hate.

UNISON is campaigning heavily to raise awareness of the issue of violence, harassment and abuse in local government services which includes its ‘End Violence at Work Charter’.

 

This initiative calls all local government and associated employers to sign up to the charter and put in place the charter’s recommended prevention measures, monitoring processes, support for victims, safeguards and training to help improve staff safety in the workplace.

In the first six months of 2021 the Environmental Services Association saw a significant spike in incidents of aggression and violence towards operatives with a 10-fold increase compared to the same period in 2020 – as reported by i News in their article entitled: Verbal and physical attacks on binmen and women have ‘more than doubled’ in 2021.

This highlights figures released by Veolia which carries out kerbside collections for numerous councils across the country. Between Jan – Oct 2021 846 verbal and physical attacks on its public facing workers – more than doubling from 2020.

Of course, emergency ‘blue light’ services are not exempt from receiving verbal abuse and physical attacks. For example, the National Fire Chief’s Council (NFCC) reported that between 2015 -2020 there were more than 3,800 attacks on firefighters, with 950 attacks in 2019/20 alone.

Alarmingly in some areas of the country fires crews can no longer attend some types of fires – unless they have a police escort. The NFCC is calling for all UK fire services to use body worn cameras, following a spate of mindless attacks on crews.

It is a similar picture for police with Home Office statistics revealing a whopping 25,734 reports of ‘assault without injury on a police constable’ in year ending March2021 and 11,235 recorded as ‘assault with injury’. It is not surprising that around 71% of police constabularies have adopted body worn camera technology.

In 2018 the Government changed the law (Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018) so that anyone found guilty of assaulting a police officer, firefighter, prison officer or paramedic faces a maximum of 12 months in prison. This is not yet the case, however, for public facing workers in other sectors nationally.

Retail

retail staff abuse

 

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) has today published its 2021 Retail Crime Surveywhich highlights the scale of violence and abuse faced by retail staff. The survey shows there were 455 incidents of violence or abuse each day in 2019/20, up 7% from 2018/19.

In September 2020, the BRC launched its Shopworkers’ Protection Pledge, calling on politicians to stand with retail workers to support legislation for better protection and improved staff safety in the workplace. The pledge has so far been signed by over 55 MPs from all major parties. This came after the Prime Minister told Parliament in 2020, that “we should not tolerate crimes of violence against shopworkers”.

However, Helen Dickinson OBE, Chief Executive of the British Retail Consortium, said:

“Will retail workers in England and Wales ever receive the protection they deserve? Despite clear evidence showing the escalation of violence and abuse against retail workers, the Government has time and time again chosen not to act.”

The BRC is calling for a statutory offence for assaulting, threatening, or abusing a retail worker. The Scottish Parliament has already taken decisive action to better protect retail workers.

Retail union USDAW has recently published the interim results of its survey from nearly 3.500 retail staff during the annual ‘Respect for Shpworkers Week’ (15-21 November) – this reveals that a staggering 89% of shopworkers have experienced verbal abuse in the past 12 months, with 64% being threatened by a customer and 11% being physically assaulted.

Paddy Lillis – USDAW General Secretary says:

“It is shocking that 9 in 10 of our members working in retail are suffering abuse from customers, with far too many experiencing threats and violence. So it is extremely worrying that half are not confident that reporting these issues will make any difference.”

USDAW  or ‘Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers’ is the UK’s fifth biggest trade union with over 370,000 members working in the retail sector, but the union also has many members in transport, distribution, food manufacturing, chemical industry and other trades. USDAW is running its  ‘Freedom from Fear Campaign‘  which seeks to prevent violence, threats and abuse against workers by engaging the public, shopworkers and the Government.

In a recent House of Commons report too, The Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) is cited as finding that 89% of individuals working in local shops had experienced some form of abuse.

Clearly something has to change, and the response to this is outlined below in the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee report: Violence and abuse towards retail workers.

Customer services

Customer services staff abused

 

In July 2020 the Institute of Customer Service revealed that based on their research, more than half of customer facing employees had experienced increased hostility from customers during the coronavirus crisis – with 56% having experienced abuse from customers.

Also in July the organisation launched their new campaign: Service With Respect calling on government, businesses and customers to take action to address this issue and do more to protect customer-facing staff from rising levels of hostility and abuse.

Service with Respect Logo

A year on,  Jo Causon – CEO of the Institute of Customer Service says:

“The response has been encouraging, with organisations, politicians, the media and the public coming together to support the campaign. However, while we can see good progress being made, we recognise that we still have some way to go.”

Their own research shows that the worrying rise in instances of abuse and hostility are not isolated to retail workers with evidence of increases coming from every quarter of the service industry.

Politicians are now calling for greater protection which is encouraging and alongside their members, organisations such as the Institute of Customer Service are continuing to campaign for the Government to consider widening protections to all service sector employees to encourage behavioural change and greater protection.

Jo Causon addresses the economic implications of violence and abuse towards service industry workers by saying:

“No one should have to work under fear of hostility and abuse – and we have a duty of care to protect our front-line workers and ensure they are treated with respect. But the issue has economic consequences, too. Our research shows that a third of victims who have experienced customer hostility have either left their job or are seeking a new job as a result – potentially costing UK businesses an estimated £1bn in recruitment costs. As we emerge from lockdown, customer-facing staff – who account for 61% of the workforce – will be in the front line of our nation’s economic recovery. If we are to build a better society, with stronger businesses at its core, we all should consider what more we can do to protect the safety and mental resilience of our service workers.”

What is the plan to reduce the risks to public facing staff?

In June 2021, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee released its 79 page report on this issue: Violence and abuse towards retail workers. This very detailed inquiry is broken down into five categories:

  1. The scale of the problem
  2. Policing response
  3. Employer responsibilities
  4. Reasons for repeat offences
  5. Legal framework and the case for legal amendments

Below we look into two of these in more detail – police response and employer responsibilities:

Policing response

The inquiry identifies ‘a crisis of confidence’ as one of the key issues raised in relation to police response. This issue cites the ACS 2021 Crime Report that found that 68% of retailers were ‘very dissatisfied’ with police investigation of incidents, while 36% had ‘no confidence’ that the police would investigate the crimes they report.

Views taken from a range of national retailers delivered a mixed response to police response perceptions, however. For example, Dunelm Soft Furnishings commented that:

“It has reached the stage now that unless we dial 999 or press our Personal Attack Buttons store colleagues are left to take the abuse and threats until the abuser gives up and leaves the store”.

Whereas some stakeholders presented a more positive picture – such as a Wickes, saying that of the 241 incidents it has reported to police since 2014, 68% were subsequently responded to and 16% led an arrest. They commented:

“We have historically been happy with the levels of police response” but also noted that “as the number of cases has steadily risen, the police response rate has not”.

The inquiry committee noted that it heard evidence that ‘policing response is failing to match the rising tide of violence and abuse against retail workers’, a response that varies significantly between police forces. It also recognised that ‘ that policing has been increasingly overstretched and that officers are working hard to respond to rising demand with constrained resources.’

The inquiry recommends several solutions to work towards improvements in police response to the increase in abuse and violence towards public facing staff incidents and its perceptions that fall under the following categories:

  • Improved reporting and recording
  • Local prioritisation of violence and abuse against shopworkers
  • Neighbourhood policing
  • Leadership from the National Business Crime Centre
  • Business Crime Reduction Partnerships

>  Read the solutions recommendations in their full context:  House of Commons Affairs Committee inquiry: Violence and abuse towards retail workers

The role of Employers

As crime prevention agencies consider ways of improving their response to abuse and violence aimed at public facing employees, so too must employers.

Police response, we believe, only forms part of the solution and we ask the question: can employers do more to protect their public staff?

It is interesting to note as part of the above mentioned Home Office inquiry, the Government’s ‘call for evidence’ survey found that the top three reasons why retail employees did not report incidents were:

  1. 35% – “I did not believe the employer would do anything about it”
  2. 32% – “I did believed it was just part of my job”
  3. 31% I considered the incident too minor to report”

Employers have a duty of care and play a vital role in ensuring their employees have the confidence to report incidents, and the appropriate support to deal with difficult situations. Evidence from Government’s call for evidence public survey suggests that many retail workers are not getting the support they need from their employers – with 68% of respondents suggesting that no further help was provided after official the response.

The inquiry highlights Suzy’s Charter for Workplace Safety’ as the a benchmark resource for both employers and employees – providing a a “personal safety framework that can help organisations become fully compliant with excellent personal safety policy and protocols” . This covers the following key points:

  • Embed a workplace personal safety culture: regular consultation with staff about risks, ensuring employees follow safety in the workplace policies.
  • Implement robust risk assessments; regular reviews and updates, consideration of the mental health implications on workers.
  • Provide robust reporting procedures; enable anonymous reporting by employees, clear incident follow-up procedures, sign-posting to support services.
  • Provide personal safety training and prearranged systems for covertly raising the alarm.
  • Implement a tracing system with details of colleagues who are lone working.

> See the framework for ‘Suzy’s Charter for Workplace Safety’ which is published on National Business Crime Centre’s  website here

What can businesses do help prevent further incidents?

The responsibility to provide staff safety in the workplace falls squarely on employers. This means assessing the risks and ensuring appropriate steps are in place to protect their employee’s physical and mental wellbeing. These steps should include a conflict resolution framework and training to public facing staff along with a simplified reporting process.  Of course, physical security measures are a major consideration too…

The call for an increase security measures was the most popular response from retail workers in the above mentioned survey – with 42% of respondents saying ‘more or improved security measures in/around the premises’ would help to prevent future incidents from occurring’

Many businesses have acted to help stem the increase in abuse and violent incidents towards their workers. In fact, the British Retail Consortium estimates that in 2020 alone the total cost to retailers of crime prevention measures was £1.2 billion. The Association of Convenience Stores estimates that its member spend £175 million in the same period.

Some big names in retail are leading the way in demonstrating a ‘zero tolerance’ of both physical and verbal abuse against staff by significantly improving their safety in the workplace security measures.  Boots for example has spent £100 million over the past 5 years to support ‘colleague safety, security and loss prevention’ with security measures including a CCTV Monitoring Centre to provide real time support to colleagues during incidents, body worn video in high risk stores and a lone working device pilot scheme.

They are not alone, Dixons Carphone spent significant sums on deterring theft and reducing incidents of violence towards colleagues with measures including CCTV and the roll out of panic alarms.

Co-op committed to spend £140 million between 2016-2022 on security, crime prevention and colleague safety measures which include the roll out of headsets in all stores to enable staff to stay connected, linking its CCTV network to a central monitoring station to enable a ‘command and control centre’ response when employees press their panic buttons and have completed a body worn camera trial which showed a ‘really strong deterrent impact’.

The John Lewis Partnership has also rolled out Body Worn Video technology to “priority locations” across all John Lewis and Waitrose stores which colleagues report ‘adds to a feeling of safety in store” and has had a noticeable deterrent effect with regards to threatening behaviour’.

The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee noted that it was impressed by the range of solutions and the potential of new technology to improve both safety in the workplace and the ability to gather evidence about incidents of retail crime. The methods described above, such as body worn video cameras, headsets for internal communication, counselling services and central command and control systems, represent a best practice approach.

However, it does acknowledge that many of these solutions will not be financially viable for many businesses looking to provide their staff safety in the workplace. It encourages large national retailers to play a leading role in local business partnerships, working with local councils and the police to encourage and include small independent high street retailers in security measures including CCTV or local communication networks for sharing intelligence on incidents or repeat offenders.

Farsight provides remote monitoring solutions to help keep staff safe

Farsight Security

 

If you need a team of professionals to monitor your security systems in a central control & command capacity, respond to threatening situations with audio warnings, monitor your lone worker protection systems or monitor your CCTV systems to give your staff safety in the workplace and the protection they deserve, Farsight would love to hear from you.

Farsight works with businesses and their employees over a wide range of public sector organisations and private sector firms across the UK. As a leading remote security central monitoring station, we deliver bespoke security solutions that can help to reduce the risks many frontline workers face on a daily basis and improve staff safety in the workplace.

To speak us about how our remote monitoring solutions can protect your premises, assets and people, whether your business is large or small,  simply call us on 0845 371 0101 or drop us a line below:

Additional resources

As your read this article, Farsight’s team of remote security operators are monitoring the safety of workers across the UK 24/7 365, people like this delivery driver…

lone worker logistics

 

These additional articles provide useful information on staff safety in the workplace and how we help to protect workers across the UK from our central monitoring station:

> Lone worker protection: Keeping frontline keyworkers safe with Farsight 

> Some of the lone worker safety devices monitored by Farsight