Work-related violence and aggression can be any incident where a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work. 

Work-related violence and aggression may include: 

  • physical assault such as biting, scratching, hitting, kicking, pushing, grabbing, throwing objects 
  • intentionally coughing or spitting on someone 
  • sexual assault or any other form of indecent physical contact, and 
  • harassment or aggressive behaviour that creates a fear of violence, such as stalking, verbal threats and abuse, yelling and swearing and can be in person, by phone, email or online. 

Work-related violence and aggression can result from a range of sources including: 

  • External violence and aggression from customers, clients or members of the public 
  • Internal violence and aggression from other workers, supervisors or managers 
  • Family and domestic violence from a family or domestic relationship when this occurs at the workplace, including if the person’s workplace is their home. For more, go to the Family and domestic violence information.  

Work-related violence and aggression can result in both physical and/or psychological harm to the person it is directed at and anyone witnessing the behaviour. For more about psychological harm, go to the Mental health and COVID-19 information. 

It can happen in any industry but is most common in industries where people work with the public or external clients. Higher risk industries include: 

  • health care and social assistance – this includes nurses, doctors, paramedics, allied health workers, residential and home carers  
  • public administration and safety – such as police officers, protective service officers, security officers, prison guards and welfare support workers 
  • retail and hospitality – including workers at grocery outlets, convenience stores and pharmacies  
  • education and training – including teachers and teachers’ aides. 

Young workers may also experience higher rates of work-related violence in the form of initiation hazing. 

Coughing and spitting 

In the COVID-19 environment, deliberate acts of coughing and spitting on workers have occurred as a form of violence, particularly against police officers, health care workers and emergency response workers. There have also been incidents of customers spitting on retail workers due to product restrictions. Some jurisdictions have introduced specific fines and jail terms for people who intentionally spit or cough on workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Further information about responding to coughing and spitting incidents can be obtained from the police in your jurisdiction (for example, in NSW coughing or spitting on a public official in a way that is likely to cause fear about the spread of COVID-19 is an offence). 

What are my WHS duties to manage work-related violence and aggression?

You must ensure workers and others are not exposed to risks to their health and safety, including from work-related violence. You must take a systematic approach to managing risk with the aim of eliminating the risk, or if this is not possible, minimising the risk so far as is reasonably practicable.  

Workers and others at the workplace also have a duty to take reasonable care of their own health and safety, and not adversely affect the health and safety of themselves or others. This includes following any reasonable instruction given to comply with a health and safety duty. 

You need to identify hazards, assess risks and implement controls 

Consult workers on physical and psychological hazards from violence and aggression in the workplace and on how to manage them. Workers often know what the issues are and have ideas about how to manage them. For more information, go to Consultation and communication. 

Once you have consulted workers, determined appropriate measures and put them in place, continue to review how you are managing the risks to check your measures are working.  

Identifying hazards

Identifying hazards involves consulting with workers and other duty holders and observing how work is carried out to see what can go wrong. 

  • Work-related violence can arise from hazards that increase stress and conflict. During the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses may be welcoming the public back under new conditions. For example, there may be limits on the number of customers in stores, restrictions on products and services, physical distancing measures and contactless collection methods or deliveries.  

External violence and aggression may occur due to:  

  • general stress and anxiety in the community related to physical distancing rules, e.g. if people are not complying with the rules 
  • products and services are restricted or no longer available 
  • business hours are limited  
  • longer queues and wait times and limits on the number of customers in stores 
  • workers do not have the information on-hand to respond to customer requests or are insufficiently trained; procedures have changed and workers and customers are struggling to adjust  
  • not enough workers available to serve the public 
  • handling valuable or restricted items, for example cash or medicines 
  • providing care to people who are distressed, confused, afraid, ill or affected by drugs and alcohol 
  • workers are working in isolation, offsite or in the community, and 
  • increased isolation from support.  

Internal violence and aggression may also occur when:  

  • workers are worried about the health risks they may be exposed to and the effectiveness of preventive measures 
  • roles or workloads are poorly distributed among work teams  
  • work schedules change  
  • there is less face-to-face supervision, or workers are more isolated from support networks 
  • workloads have increased or roles have changed, for example if extra focus is given to regular cleaning and disinfection of the workplace 
  • workers are not adequately trained or familiar with products, services or workplace procedures 
  • workers are worried about their job security 
  • the workplace culture is hostile or does not prevent violence and aggression.  

Racial discrimination may also increase in the form of individual acts of aggression, or collective forms such as targeting workplaces with workers of a particular nationality or ethnicity.    

There may also be stigma around, and the potential for violence or aggression towards, people who have had COVID-19, or those who seem to be acting inconsistently with public health requirements.  

Assessing risks

If you already know the risks associated with a hazard you have identified, and there are well-known and accepted ways to control it, it may not be necessary to assess the risk of that hazard. If you need to assess risk, you must seek input from your workers and others including relevant duty holders. 

You could consider the following to work out the likelihood that someone could be harmed through work-related violence and aggression, and the degree of harm: 

  • who could be exposed to hazards 
  • when they are likely to be exposed to hazards 
  • frequency and duration of exposure to hazards 
  • the ways hazards interact to make new or greater risks 
  • effectiveness of current control measures 
  • the harm exposure could cause. 

Potential harm could: 

  • be physical or psychological 
  • include minor or serious injury and illness, or death 
  • be the result of a single incident, or build up over a longer period. 

Managing the risks of work-related violence

Work-related violence and aggression can impact psychological and physical health.  

New measures may be needed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the impacts this has had on your workplace or business operations.  

External violence and aggression

To manage the risk of violence, aggression and harassment at the workplace, consider the following:  

Physical work environment and security  

  • ensure access to the premises is appropriately controlled 
  • increase security measures such as security personnel, video surveillance or duress alarms 
  • ensure internal and external lighting provides good visibility 
  • arrange furniture and partitions to allow good visibility of service areas and avoid restrictive movement 
  • separate workers from the public, for example install protective barriers or screens  
  • prevent public access to the premises when people work alone or at night  
  • limit the amount of cash, valuables and medicines held on the premises  
  • ensure there are no dangerous objects that could be thrown or used to injure someone 
  • provide workers and others with a safe place to retreat to avoid violence 
  • put up signs to reflect that the workplace will not accept any forms of violence and aggression. 

Work systems 

  • manage expectations of customers and clients with communications about the nature and limits of the products or services you are now providing, for example online and using signage at the workplace, e.g. inform customers of reduced services, wait times, their place in the queue or offer them other methods for non-urgent requests (such as online forms) 
  • place purchase limits on the sale of in-demand goods or take them off the shelves and require customers to ask for them specifically 
  • provide information as soon as possible on the availability of services/products or processing delays 
  • clarify the procedures which customers may not be familiar with, such as physical distancing in stores and queuing procedures  
  • adapt opening hours if necessary, and clearly communicate this to the public 
  • avoid workers needing to work in isolation and provide sufficient staff during periods of high customer attendance 
  • monitor workers when they are working in the community or away from the workplace, for example a supervisor checks in regularly throughout the shift  
  • alternate the task of working with customers (in person or over the phone) with other work tasks and ensure workers have their regular breaks 
  • promote awareness messages to customers about new constraints due to the COVID-19 situation, encouraging them to show patience, respect and understanding 
  • evaluate your work practices, in consultation with your workers and their representatives, to see if they contribute to violence and aggression  
  • train workers in how to deal with difficult customers, conflict resolution and when to escalate problem calls to senior staff, including procedures to report incidents 
  • ensure that workers are made aware of their right to cease unsafe work. 

Internal violence and aggression  

There are many things you can do to reduce the risk of violence, aggression and harassment between workers, supervisors and managers, including:  

  • provide a positive, respectful work culture where violence, aggression and harassment is not tolerated 
  • provide a consistent approach to prevent inappropriate behaviour from escalating 
  • regularly review workloads and time pressures with your workers and their representatives 
  • ask workers to provide screen shots and keep records if aggressive behaviour occurs online 
  • improve role clarity by ensuring your workers have well-defined roles and the expectations of them are clear 
  • provide adequate resources and training to your workers so they are able to perform their role confidently and competently. 

Responding to incidents of violence, aggression and harassment

Responses to work-related violence, aggression and harassment will vary depending on the nature and severity of the incident. 

At the time of an incident 

Workers should be trained in what to do during a violent or aggressive incident, such as: 

  • using calm verbal and non-verbal communication
  • using verbal de-escalation and distraction techniques 
  • seeking support from other workers 
  • asking the aggressor to leave the premises or disconnecting the aggressor from the phone call 
  • activating alarms or alerting security personnel or police  
  • retreating to a safe location. 

Immediately after an incident 

Immediately after a violent or aggressive incident, you should: 

  • ensure that everyone is safe 
  • provide first aid or urgent medical attention where necessary 
  • provide individual support where required, including psychological support to the victim and other workers 
  • report what happened, who was affected and who was involved. 
  • You may need to notify your state or territory WHS regulator if the incident is a ‘notifiable incident’ (see the Incident Notification fact sheet for more information). 

Further information and resources 

SWA materials 

Other resources 

Other laws may also apply depending on the nature and circumstances of the violent or agressive behaviour, for example criminal laws, anti-discrimination laws, and the industrial laws in some jurisdictions.  

Further information can be obtained from: 

Small business must ensure workers and others are not exposed to risks to their health and safety, including from work-related violence and aggression.  

Work-related violence and aggression may include: 

  • physical assault such as biting, scratching, hitting, kicking, pushing, grabbing, throwing objects 
  • intentionally coughing or spitting on someone 
  • sexual assault or any other form of indecent physical contact, and 
  • harassment or aggressive behaviour that creates a fear of violence, such as stalking, verbal threats and abuse, yelling and swearing and can be in person, by phone, email or online. 

Violence and aggression might come from your customers or clients. But it can also come from other workers or businesses your work with. It could also come from family and domestic violence if this affects a worker while working (including working from home). For more about this, go to the Family and domestic violence information. 

You must take a systematic approach to managing risk with the aim of eliminating the risk, or if this is not possible, minimising the risk so far as is reasonably practicable.  

Workers and others at the workplace also have a duty to take reasonable care of their own health and safety, and not adversely affect the health and safety of themselves or others. This includes following any reasonable instruction given to comply with a health and safety duty. 

You need to consider when, where and how your workers might be exposed to violence and manage those risks.  

Ask your workers about when they’re exposed to violence and aggression at work and get their ideas on how to prevent it. Go to the Consultation information to read more about why it is important. 

Check that your controls are working and whether there is anything more you can do to prevent violence and harassment from happening in your small business.  

Once you have consulted workers, determined appropriate measures and put them in place, continue to review how you are managing the risks to check your measures are working. 

Coughing and spitting 

In the COVID-19 environment, deliberate acts of coughing and spitting on workers have occurred as a form of violence, particularly against police officers, health care workers and emergency response workers. There have also been incidents of customers spitting on retail workers due to product restrictions. Some jurisdictions have introduced specific fines and jail terms for people who intentionally spit or cough on workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Further information about responding to coughing and spitting incidents can be obtained from the police in your jurisdiction (for example, in NSW coughing or spitting on a public official in a way that is likely to cause fear about the spread of COVID-19 is an offence). 

Identifying hazards

Working out the risks of aggressive or violent behaviour involves talking to your workers and observing how work is carried out to see what can go wrong. 

  • Where do customers feel stressed or anxious? Where is conflict likely?  
  • What products or services are in high demand or short supply? Where might a customer feel frustrated with your business or staff?  
  • Where do workers feel most vulnerable or isolated?  

Work-related violence can arise from hazards that increase stress and conflict. During the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses may be welcoming the public back under new conditions which may increase tension and stress.  

  • For example, there may be restrictions on products and services and physical distancing measures. 

Risks to look out for 

From customers, clients and the public 

  • Things that annoy or frustrate customers and clients such as: 
    • delays, queues, limited availability of products or services,  
    • changes in normal processes, products, services and business hours 
    • workers lacking training and experience to respond to customer needs 
  • handling valuable or restricted items, for example cash or medicines 
  • providing care to people who are distressed, confused, afraid, ill or affected by drugs and alcohol 
  • workers are working in isolation, offsite or in the community, and increased isolation from support.  

Between workers 

  • worried or stressed workers, due to issues like: COVID-19 health concerns, risks at work, job security or personal issues causing stress 
  • roles or workloads are poorly distributed among work teams  
  • work schedules change  
  • workloads have increased or roles have changed, for example if extra focus is given to regular cleaning and disinfection of the workplace 
  • there is less face-to-face supervision, or workers are more isolated from support networks 
  • workers are not adequately trained or familiar with products, services or workplace procedures 
  • the workplace culture is hostile or does not prevent violence and aggression.  

Racial discrimination may also increase in the form of individual acts of aggression, or collective forms such as targeting workplaces with workers of a particular nationality or ethnicity.    

There may also be stigma around, and the potential for violence or aggression towards, people who have had COVID-19, or those who seem to be acting inconsistently with public health requirements.  

Assessing risks

You should consider the following to work out the likelihood that someone could be harmed through work-related violence, and the degree of harm: 

  • who could be exposed to hazards 
  • when they are likely to be exposed to hazards 
  • frequency and duration of exposure to hazards 
  • the ways hazards interact to make new or greater risks 
  • effectiveness of current control measures 
  • the harm exposure could cause. 

Potential harm could: 

  • be physical or psychological 
  • include minor or serious injury and illness, or death 
  • be the result of a single incident or build up over a longer period. 

Managing the risks of work-related violence 

Work-related violence and aggression can impact psychological and physical health. For more, go to the Mental health and COVID-19 information. 

New measures may be needed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the impacts this has had on your workplace or business operations.  

External violence and aggression 

Consider the following:  

Physical work environment and security  

  • ensure access to the premises is appropriately controlled and increase security measures 
  • arrange furniture and partitions to allow good visibility of service areas and avoid restrictive movement 
  • separate workers from the public, for example install protective barriers or screens
  • prevent public access to the premises when people work alone or at night  
  • limit the amount of cash, valuables and medicines held on the premises  
  • ensure there are no dangerous objects that could be thrown or used to injure someone 
  • provide workers and others with a safe place to retreat to avoid violence 
  • put up signs to reflect that the workplace will not accept any forms of violence and aggression. 

Work systems 

  • inform customers about limits, delays or changes to products and services with signs and/or on your website 
  • place purchase limits on the sale of in-demand goods or take them off the shelves and require customers to ask for them specifically 
  • clarify physical distancing in stores and queuing procedures for customers 
  • adapt opening hours if necessary, and clearly communicate this to the public 
  • avoid workers needing to work in isolation and provide sufficient staff during periods of high customer attendance 
  • monitor workers when they are working in the community or away from the workplace, for example a supervisor checks in regularly throughout the shift  
  • rotate staff to limit contact time with customers 
  • evaluate your work practices, in consultation with your workers and their representatives, to see if they contribute to violence and aggression  
  • train workers in how to deal with difficult customers, conflict resolution and when to escalate problem calls to senior staff, including procedures to report incidents 
  • ensure that workers are made aware of their right to cease unsafe work. 

Internal violence and aggression  

There are many things you can do to reduce the risk of violence, aggression and harassment between workers, supervisors and managers, including:  

  • provide a positive, respectful work culture where violence, aggression and harassment is not tolerated 
  • provide a consistent approach to prevent inappropriate behaviour from escalating 
  • regularly review workloads and time pressures with your workers and their representatives 
  • ask workers to provide screen shots and keep records if aggressive behaviour occurs online 
  • improve role clarity by ensuring your workers have well-defined roles and the expectations of them are clear 
  • provide adequate resources and training to your workers so they are able to perform their role confidently and competently. 

Responding to incidents of violence, aggression and harassment 

Responses to work-related violence, aggression and harassment will vary depending on the nature and severity of the incident. 

At the time of an incident 

Workers should be trained in what to do during a violent or aggressive incident, such as: 

  • using calm verbal and non-verbal communication
  • using verbal de-escalation and distraction techniques 
  • seeking support from other workers 
  • asking the aggressor to leave the premises or disconnecting the aggressor from the phone call 
  • activating alarms or alerting security personnel or police  
  • retreating to a safe location. 

Immediately after an incident 

Immediately after a violent incident, you should: 

  • ensure that everyone is safe 
  • provide first aid or urgent medical attention where necessary 
  • provide individual support where required, including psychological support to the victim and other workers 
  • report what happened, who was affected and who was involved. 

You may need to notify your state or territory WHS regulator if the incident is a ‘notifiable incident’ (see the Incident Notification fact sheet for more information). 

Further information and resources 

SWA materials 

Other resources 

Workplace Health and Safety Queensland: Prevention and management of violence and aggression in health services handbook.  

Other laws may also apply depending on the nature and circumstances of the violent or agressive behaviour, for example criminal laws, anti-discrimination laws, and the industrial laws in some jurisdictions.  

Further information can be obtained from: 

 

Work-related violence and aggression can be any incident where a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work. 

Work-related violence and aggression may include: 

  • physical assault such as biting, scratching, hitting, kicking, pushing, grabbing, throwing objects 
  • intentionally coughing or spitting on someone 
  • sexual assault or any other form of indecent physical contact, and 
  • harassment or aggressive behaviour that creates a fear of violence, such as stalking, verbal threats and abuse, yelling and swearing and can be in person, by phone, email or online. 

Violence and aggression might come from your customers or clients. But it can also come from other workers or businesses your work with. It could also come from family and domestic violence if this affects a worker while working (including working from home).  

If you are experiencing family and domestic violence, please go to the Family and domestic violence information.  

Racial discrimination may also increase in the form of individual acts of aggression, or collective forms such as targeting a group of workers of a particular nationality or ethnicity.    

There may also be stigma around, and the potential for violence or aggression towards, people who have had COVID-19, or those who seem to be acting inconsistently with public health requirements.   

WHS duties

Your employer has a duty to ensure that workers and others are not exposed to risks to their health and safety, including from violence and aggression in the workplace. Your employer must eliminate or minimise these risks as much as they reasonably can. 

You also have a duty to take reasonable care of your own health and safety, and not adversely affect the health and safety of yourself or others. This includes following any reasonable instruction given by your employer to comply with a health and safety duty. 

Managing the risks of work-related violence

Your workplace should have measures in place to ensure the health and safety of workers and customers from work-related violence and aggression. Go to the Employer tab for more information. 

However, your workplace might also introduce new measures or make changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the impacts this has had on your workplace or business operations. While there may not have been a violent incident in your workplace before, the risks may have increased due to the unprecedented circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

You employer must identify and manage these risks and they must consult with you in doing so. You are most likely to know about the risks of your work and can help identify situations where there is a risk of violent behaviour.  

You should tell your employer about these situations so they can put the appropriate measures in place to manage risks to your health and safety.  

Responding to incidents of violence and aggression

How you respond to work-related violence and aggression will vary depending on the nature and severity of the incident. 

You should be trained in what to do during a violent incident, such as: 

  • use calm verbal and non-verbal communication  
  • use verbal de-escalation and distraction techniques  
  • seek support from other workers  
  • ask the aggressor to leave the premises or disconnect the aggressor from the phone call
  • set off a duress alarm, if available  
  • alert security personnel or the police  
  • retreat to a safe location.  

Immediately after a violent incident, you should:  

  • ensure that everyone is safe  
  • provide first aid or urgent medical attention where necessary  
  • seek support where required, including psychological support  
  • report what happened, who was affected and who was involved. 

You can report your concerns about violent or aggressive behaviour at your workplace to your supervisor, human resources area, or the person designated by your organisation. You can also get advice from your employee assistance program if you have one. 

Further information and resources 

For further information: 

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