|Article - Employment Law|
Tackling Violence in the Workplace
failing to protect employees from violent or abusive members of the public
or colleagues an employer could be in breach of duty to provide a safe
place of work.
Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 (‘the
Act’) imposes a duty on an employer to provide a safe place of work
for its employees. This means,
amongst other things, that an employer has a duty to take reasonable
precautions to protect employees from reasonably foreseeable dangers
including abuse or violence at work. A
breach of this duty could result in an injured employee claiming damages
from the employer. What would
or would not amount to a foreseeable risk is a question of fact in each
duty under the Act is to take reasonable steps, which, in practice, will
differ from case to case depending on the level of risk to which the
employee is exposed. Provided
that an employer has assessed the risk, and has implemented adequate
precautions to reduce or eliminate it, then the potential for injured
employees to claim damages is reduced.
Indeed, it is a requirement under the Management of Health &
Safety Work Regulations 1999 to carry out suitable and sufficient
assessments and ignorance of the law is no defence.
duty to provide a safe place of work is also a term which is implied into
the contract of employment. Breach
of this term can entitle the affected employee to resign and claim
constructive unfair dismissal. The
breach, however, must be a serious one.
An example would be where the employee draws to the employer’s
attention a serious risk of danger, either from a member of the public or
from a fellow employee, but the employer fails to promptly and sensibly
investigate it. Once the
complaint is investigated, if nothing is done about it, where protective
measures could have been taken, then the injured employee may be entitled
to treat him or her self as constructively dismissed and claim
compensation for loss of earnings and the injury itself.
If an employee informs an employer that they are being bullied by a
fellow employee, either physically or verbally, this should be
investigated and appropriate action taken which may involve disciplinary
action being taken against the offending party.
If the abuse is connected to the individual’s race, colour,
religion or belief, sexuality, nationality, sex or disability, then the
employee may also have a claim for discrimination and his or her case is
strengthened in circumstances where the employer, having known about the
abuse, failed to take any action.
employer should consider putting up a visible sign warning customers that
staff have the right to work in an environment which is free from abuse
and/or violence and that offenders will be prosecuted.
Employees must also be educated that abusive behaviour and/or
physical violence will not be tolerated in the workplace.
Motive is irrelevant, so it does not matter whether the guilty
employee was fooling around. The
test is wholly subjective so what one person finds inoffensive another may
should be taken seriously and acted upon.
If the complaint involves another employee, then provided that the
employer has investigated the matter as thoroughly as reasonably
practicable, and in the absence of a satisfactory explanation from the
offending employee, dismissing the abusive/violent employee may well be
fair (subject to following fair disciplinary and dismissal procedures).
addition, in circumstances where an employee reasonably believes that they
are in serious and imminent danger which cannot be averted, they have a
right to refuse to work. To
dismiss an employee where there is a perceived risk of danger, from
another employee or a member of the public, could be an unfair dismissal.
In cases where the employee complains of unsafe working conditions,
taking protective measures, or refusing to work in the face of the danger,
there is no statutory limit on the amount of compensation for this type of
The use of self defence is a thorny issue as the law only allows the use of a reasonable amount of force. What is or is not reasonable force is open to debate and readers will be all too aware of recent publicised cases involving burglary. The Home Office has issued guidance explaining what reasonable force might mean in a given situation, but this is not clear and it will be for a Court to decide what is or is not reasonable. A degree of common sense is required and wherever possible walking away from a situation can often be the safest and most prudent course of action rather than risking a violent confrontation.
Article First Published: 5 May 2005
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