August 2003

Workplace Violence: An OH&S Perspective

Violence in the workplace may represent an unsafe working environment not only for employees but also for other persons at an employer’s place of work. With the overriding obligation of an employer to ensure the health and safety of all employees and non-employees at their place of work it is time to revisit this workplace hazard.

The challenge for employers is broader than one of recognising the problem. It is to identify and implement actions to prevent workplace violence. This may be a difficult task.

What is workplace violence?

Workplace "violence" may include verbal and written abuse, harassment, bullying and intimidation, assault, armed robbery and damage to property.

Workplace violence can be perpetrated from an internal source within an organisation, such as a co-worker or manager, or may arise from an external source, such as a customer, client or visitor. Identifying the form and sources of workplace violence is an important step towards recognising and actioning violence in your workplace.

How serious is workplace violence?

Workplace violence can have devastating effects on an individual and can disrupt and adversely affect a workplace. To illustrate, research indicates with regard to workplace bullying:

  • Somewhere between 25% and 50% of employees will experience some bullying in their working lives and 4% to 20% of employees have been bullied in the past 6 to 12 months. A significant portion of those bullied take time off work. (QLD Taskforce on Workplace Bullying - March 2002)

The cost of workplace violence is more than an "employee" problem. It disrupts workplace productivity, a direct cost to a company’s bottom line and can result in an increase in workers compensation and public liability claims.

"Workplace violence is a unique hazard. It has the ability to be discrete and hidden".

The failure to have in place adequate procedures to deal with workplace violence may also result in prosecution. In Gordon Tuckley v The Crown in the Right of the State of NSW [1999] NSW IRC 402, the Department of Community Services was fined $95,000 for failing to have emergency procedures in place to protect an employee when confronted with aggressive behaviour. There have been other OH&S prosecutions arising from workplace violence.

Obligations under the Occupational Health & Safety Act 2000

A primary obligation of an employer is to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees.

Further, employers must ensure non-employees are not exposed to risks to their health and safety arising from the employer’s undertaking while at the employer’s place of work.

The Occupational Health and Safety Regulation 2001 requires an employer to have in place risk management practices. An employer must identify hazards, assess the risk arising from the hazard, eliminate or control the risk and review those risk management measures. Within this framework, regulation 9 of the OHS Regulation 2001 prescribes the potential for workplace violence as a specific workplace hazard which must be effectively risk managed.

In identifying and assessing workplace violence as a hazard an employer is obliged to consult with its workforce. Consultation should occur when identifying the hazard, conducting risk assessments and implementing risk control measures. The courts have recognised the importance of OHS Committees in dealing with workplace violence: see Bryant v City of Fairfield RSL Memorial Club Ltd (1997), Industrial Relations Court of Australia.

Identifying workplace violence as a hazard

With various potential forms and sources of workplace violence an employer needs to be systematic when identifying the potential for workplace violence as a specific hazard.

An employer must consider the nature and location of work, the types of customers and visitors to its premises, hours of business and the workplace environment, practices and systems. For example, do employees work in competing or conflicting groups? If so, there could be an increased risk of harassment or bullying. Do employees deal with clients who are in distress or psychologically disturbed? Do employees work in an environment which is open to members of the public? There could be a risk of threats, verbal or physical assault. Do employees work alone or with valuable goods or cash? There could be a risk of armed hold-up or physical assault.

By consulting with staff, reviewing previous incidents and injury reports, consulting industry expertise and checking existing security and safety measures an employer will be a step closer to identifying and eliminating workplace violence.

Taking workplace violence seriously

Workplace violence is a unique hazard. It has the ability to be discrete and hidden. For this reason an employer needs to treat workplace violence differently from other hazards.

Steps an employer should consider taking include:

  • Implementing reporting systems to assist in hazard identification;

  • Inform, instruct and train staff in dealing with workplace violence;

  • Implement measures and emergency procedures to respond to workplace violence;

  • Implement clear and transparent policies on workplace violence and educate staff in these policies; and

  • Investigate and effectively action all reports of violence.

Workplace Bullying: an example of workplace violence

Workplace bullying is repeated, unreasonable behaviour that humiliates, victimises and threatens an employee or a group of employees. Workplace bullying can be physical or psychological, can be perpetrated by a co-worker or a manager.

Bullying is difficult to detect due to fear of retribution or the acceptance of bullying as a normal part of workplace culture. The cost for an organisation in permitting workplace bullying can be significant. In State of NSW v Garry Donald Jeffery [2000], the Supreme Court upheld the District Court award of damages to an employee who was subject to bullying tactics which had an adverse affect on his health.

In complying with an employer’s OHS obligations the employer must identify workplace bullying as a hazard, assess any risks and eliminate those risks, as well as adopting other measures compatible with the nature of workplace bullying. Such steps could include creating an awareness of workplace bullying, develop a no bullying policy and educate staff in, reinforcing management commitment to a bully-free workplace, encourage reporting and develop strategies for resolution.

Conclusion

Workplace violence is unacceptable in all workplaces. To prevent workplace violence requires careful planning, systematic assessment and effective response strategies. Failure to prevent workplace violence could result in prosecution, loss of valuable employees and loss of productivity and efficiency.