Violence at work

Hitting the mark

An overview of the law relating to violence at work

A recent survey showed that more than a third of nurses working alone in the community had been assaulted or harassed. But they are not the only ones. Local government employees, train drivers and conductors, fire fighters, ambulance personnel and other workers all face risks.

Judith Gledhill, a personal injury partner with Thompsons, provides an overview of the legal duties of employers whose staff face violence at work on a daily basis

Basic obligations

All employers have a duty to look after the health and safety of their employees, to provide a safe place of work and to ensure that their systems of work are safe. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations also require employers to carry out a “suitable and sufficient” assessment of any risks to the health and safety of their employees, and to identify any measures they should take to comply with their health and safety obligations.

Risk of violence

But what should employers do if, having done a risk assessment, they discover there is a risk of violence to their workers? The aim of the regulations is prevention rather than cure, so employers should try to avoid the risk completely in the first place.

If that is simply not realistic, they should make alterations to the working environment. For instance, by introducing panic buttons and / or CCTV cameras. Perspex screens protecting employees from members of the public might also be appropriate in some circumstances. Or the employer may decide that their employees should not work alone. If so, they should implement policies to that effect and increase staffing levels.

Patterson -v- Tees and NE Yorkshire NHS Trust

In the case of Patterson -v- Tees & North East Yorkshire NHS Trust, Mr Patterson (a senior psychiatric nurse) was assaulted by a patient with a history of violence. The patient had absconded from hospital and a press release was issued warning the public to take care. The patient saw the broadcast, returned to hospital and assaulted a senior male nurse on the ward.

On starting work, Mr Patterson was made aware of events earlier that day, but was not told that the patient had made verbally abusive comments about him. The patient then attacked Mr Patterson and injured him.

The trust argued that they were not liable because the assault could not have been prevented, given the safeguards they had put in place to protect staff. The trial Judge disagreed, saying that the trust had been negligent and in breach of its legal obligations as it had failed to warn Mr Patterson about the verbal abuse. The Judge also found that the trust had failed in its duty to continually risk assess patients on an event-by-event basis.

The employers asked for leave to appeal, but the Court of Appeal refused saying that the trial Judge was entitled to conclude that the evidence of the patient’s behaviour prior to the assault was enough to find fault. Specifically, the court said that if Mr Patterson had been made aware of the verbal abuse, he might well have taken steps to avoid any dealings with the patient.

Smith -v- Welsh Ambulance Service NHS Trust

Employers also have to ensure that they have a strategy in place to address workplace violence, and that all employees are properly trained in how to apply it.

In the case of Smith -v- Welsh Ambulance Service NHS Trust (see PILR June 2007) the trial Judge accepted that members of the emergency services would sometimes face risky situations. If that was the case, he said it was essential for control room staff to do a risk assessment and then make an “intelligent decision” about whether to send in a lone worker or not.

In this particular case, the Judge found that the control room staff should have advised Mr Smith to wait until the police arrived. They had not been trained to do this, however, and could not therefore give guidance on how to deal with such a potentially dangerous situation. Nor did they know how to quickly do a risk assessment. That meant that paramedics and other ambulance personnel were left to make difficult decisions alone.

Other staff facing violence

Although cases involving violence to health care workers are on the increase, other workers are also at risk from violent assaults by members of the public. Take the case of Collins -v- First Quench Retailing Ltd. Miss Collins was the manager of an off licence store owned by First Quench. She was alone in the shop in June 1998 when masked men burst in and put a knife to her throat. She was pushed into a cellar and made to open the shop safe. Understandably, she suffered a severe psychological reaction to the assault.

Miss Collins brought a claim, alleging that her employers had failed to provide her with adequate protection, given that the shop had a history of serious incidents. Since 1977 there had been 13 reported crimes including four armed robberies. In 1997, another employee had resigned after being threatened by a violent customer.

Not only that, but she had already asked her employers to provide better security in the form of screens and to ensure there were two members of staff in the shop at all times. Her employer did nothing, however. There was then another armed robbery on 31 May 1998, but her employers still took no action.

First Quench argued that the shop was not located in a high-risk area and that the number of incidents were not significantly higher than in other local shops. They had fitted the off licence with panic buttons and a CCTV camera, and had rostered two staff to work evening shifts. These measures, the employer said, were enough to protect staff from violent customers and robberies.

The police gave evidence at the trial, saying that premises with lone women workers were more vulnerable to attack than those with at least two members of staff.

The Judge found in favour of Miss Collins, saying that lone workers were generally easier to attack than two or more employees. Having more than one person in the shop did not just act as a deterrent to robbers, but to all forms of physical or even verbal attack.

He therefore decided that having two employees in the shop at all times was a step that would have materially reduced the risk of an attack and that the employers could reasonably have implemented the change. As a result, First Quench was found to be in breach of the duty to take reasonable care to ensure the safety of its employees.

Employer obligations

With violent assaults on working people becoming more commonplace, it is vital that employers comply with their legal obligations and undertake detailed risk assessments.

Once a risk is identified, employers must implement systems to reduce the risk to the lowest level possible.

Staff go to work to do their job, not to face abuse and violence. If employers pay lip service to their legal duties, they run the risk of their employees being injured, having to take time off work to recover and in some cases not being able to return to work at all. Costly legal proceedings may then follow with the employer or their insurer being ordered to pay significant sums by way of compensation. In many instances, this could be avoided if the employer had just done what they were supposed to do.