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

Work-related violence covers a broad range of actions and behaviours that create a risk to the health and safety. Examples include:

  • any form of assault, such as biting, spitting, scratching, hitting, kicking punching, pushing, shoving, tripping, grabbing or throwing objects
  • any form of indecent physical contact
  • intimidating behaviour that creates a fear of violence, such as stalking or threatening to do any of the above.

Work-related or occupational violence can have significant short and long term impacts on a worker’s psychological and physical health. These can in turn have significant economic and social costs for workers, their family, their organisation and the wider community.

Work-related violence can harm both the person it is directed at, and anyone witnessing it, both physically and psychologically.

Violence can happen in any occupation; however, data shows workers in some industries are more likely to experience work-related violence. Those industries are:

  • health care and social assistance – this includes nurses, doctors, paramedics and residential carers
  • public administration and safety – such as police officers, protective service offices, prison guards and welfare support workers
  • 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.

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 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 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 any other relevant duty holders. 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.

Identifying hazards

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

Work-related violence can arise from hazards that increase stress and conflict. This includes high job demands, low job control, lack of role clarity, environmental conditions as well as poor workplace relationships.

Additional hazards for work-related violence can include:

  • working alone, in isolation or in a remote area with the inability to call for assistance
  • working offsite or in the community
  • working in unpredictable environments
  • communicating face-to-face with customers
  • handling valuable or restricted items, for example cash, fire arms or medicines
  • providing care to people who are distressed, confused, afraid, ill or affected by drugs and alcohol
  • service methods that cause or escalate frustration, resentment, misunderstanding or conflict, for example setting unreasonable expectations of the services an organisation or workers can provide
  • enforcement activities, for example the activities of police, prison officers or parking inspectors.

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 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

Control risks

The best way to reduce the likelihood of work-related violence is to eliminate the risk of exposure to it. If that’s not possible, you need to minimise the risk as far as reasonably practicable.

Prevention and management of work-related violence requires an integrated organisational approach. For example, the risk of exposure to work-related violence can be affected by:

  • nature and location of work
  • number and types of clients
  • staffing levels and skills

This means the control measures need to be tailored to your business or undertaking, and to your workers.

Engaging your workers, and any other relevant duty holders, in developing controls will mean the measures are more likely to be effective and used.

Examples of control measures include:

  • moving to an electronic payment system so that cash does not need to be held or banked
  • improving processes to reduce wait times and double handling
  • ensuring promotional material and worker performance standards establish clear, achievable expectations
  • designing work areas so that others cannot easily access staff, for example with security doors and high counters, or parking that is not publicly accessible
  • sending workers out in pairs to isolated or remote areas with a reliable means of communication to request and obtain assistance when needed
  • protecting workers’ identity, for example using name tags with only a first name, or choosing one name for all outgoing correspondence
  • providing supervision and support for workers, especially new and young workers
  • setting, modelling and enforcing acceptable behaviour standards for workers and others

You can also develop policies and procedures for workers to follow if work-related violence occurs, including:

  • de-escalating conflict
  • refusing to deal with aggressive or potentially violence people
  • protect their own safety
  • contacts for effective assistance in an emergency
  • reporting a work-related violence concern or incident
  • process for dealing with a report of violence

You must train workers to use the equipment you provide, and apply the procedures you set up, so they know what to do in potentially violent situations.

Review risk management

You should re-do hazard identification and review the systems and procedures for controlling risks. This should be done periodically, as well as after an incident, or a concern is raised. Review will help to ensure the risk of work-related violence continues to be eliminated or minimised as far as practicable.

Further advice

SWA is not a regulator and cannot advise you about compliance with eliminating or minimising work-related violence. If you need help, please contact your state or territory work health and safety authority.

Further information on preventing and responding to work-related violence is available from the following WHS regulators:

Other laws may also apply depending on the nature and circumstances of the threatening or violent behaviour, for example criminal laws, anti-discrimination laws, and the industrial laws in some jurisdictions. Further information can be obtained from the police in your jurisdiction, the Australian Human Rights Commission, Fair Work Commission or the Fair Work Ombudsman



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