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Workplace violence and aggression can have significant short and long term impacts on a worker’s physical and psychological health. 

Under model WHS laws, businesses and organisations must manage the health and safety risks of workplace violence and aggression. This includes violence and aggression between workers and from other people at the workplace like customers and clients.

Work health and safety duties

The model WHS laws require persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) to ensure workers and others are not exposed to risks to their health and safety, including from violence and aggression. PCBUs must take a systematic approach to managing risk with the aim of eliminating the risk, or if this is not possible, minimising the risk as far as is reasonably practicable. 

One way to do this is to follow the risk management process in consultation with workers, health and safety representatives and other businesses you work with or share a premises with. This involves:

  • identifying hazards
  • assessing risks, if necessary
  • controlling risks
  • reviewing hazards and control measures to ensure they are working as planned.

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.

What can workplace violence or aggression look like?

Workplace violence can be any incident where a person is abused, threatened or assaulted at the workplace or while they are carrying out work.  It can be:

  • 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 
  • harassment or aggressive behaviour that creates a fear of violence, such as stalking, sexual harassment, verbal threats and abuse, yelling and swearing
  • hazing or initiation practices for new or young workers, and
  • violence from a family or domestic relationship when this occurs at the workplace, including if the person’s workplace is their home.

Violence or aggression may also be gendered in nature. Gendered violence is any behaviour directed at any person or that affects a person because of their sex, gender or sexual orientation, or because they do not adhere to socially prescribed gender roles, that creates a risk to health and safety. For example, this includes violence targeted at someone because they identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer or asexual (LGBTIQA+).

Sexual harassment may also be a form of gendered violence and may be perpetrated by various people including an employer, supervisor, co-worker, client, patient or customer. For information about how to prevent sexual harassment, see the Guide: Preventing workplace sexual harassment.

Who is affected by violence and aggression?

Violence can harm both the person it is directed at and anyone witnessing it. This can have significant economic and social costs for workers, their family, their organisation and the wider community.

Workplace violence and aggression 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, child protection 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, particularly for new and young workers, including workers at grocery outlets, pharmacies, petrol stations, restaurants, bars and takeaway food service
  • education and training – including teachers and teachers’ aides.

New and young workers may also experience higher rates of workplace violence or aggression in the form of initiation or hazing. These are activities involving harassment or abuse to recognise or accept a person as part of the group. Hazing commonly involves negative, humiliating or distressing experiences for new and young workers which can result in physical and psychological harm. 

Impacts of workplace violence and aggression

Violence and aggression can cause physical and psychological harm to the person it is directed at and anyone witnessing the behaviour. It can lead to:

  • feelings of isolation, social isolation or family dislocation
  • loss of confidence and withdrawal
  • physical injuries as a result of assault
  • stress, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • illness such as cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, immune deficiency and gastrointestinal disorders e.g. as a result of stress, and
  • suicidal thoughts.

It is not just violent incidents such as physical assault which can cause harm. Exposure to lower levels but frequent forms of aggression can also have a lasting effect on a worker’s health. Workers who regularly experience behaviours such as swearing, yelling, name-calling, sexual or gendered comments and taunting may have serious long-term negative impacts on their mental and physical health.

Further advice and support services

Safe Work Australia is not a regulator and cannot advise you about compliance with WHS laws in your jurisdiction. If you need help, please contact your state or territory work health and safety authority.

Other laws may also apply depending on the nature and circumstances of violence and aggression, for example criminal laws, anti-discrimination laws and industrial laws. Further information and advice can be obtained from the organisations and agencies below:


 

Codes and guides
Reports and Case studies

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