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:
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.
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”.
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.
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”.
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.
The HSE has published guidance on preventing violence to retail staff, as well as preventing workplace harassment and violence.
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