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Protecting your staff from abuse

Staff with regular contact with the general public are not always safe from those they try to serve.
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Protecting your staff from abuse

Protecting your staff from abuse

18 July 2019


Abuse from members of the public may sound like a trivial complaint. But for some workers, the public can be a source of anything from irritation through to threats and outright physical harm.


Whether it’s a hospital employee punched in the face by an ‘ice’-affected patient, a community services worker at a women’s refuge menaced by a furious boyfriend demanding entry, or the coach of a school sports team yelled at by an irate parent, staff with regular contact with the general public are not always safe from those they try to serve.

The annals of WHS history are full of incidents where workers are screamed at, spat on or have their arms broken, but hardly any of this ever gets any media attention. A recent exception was when a radio presenter was abused by a listener – it was reported that she broke down in tears on air after receiving a message insulting her competence from a listener, sent through the station's feedback channel. The message said she was ‘awful’, had conducted a ‘pitiful’ interview, that she had embarrassed the person interviewed and provided ‘excruciating listening’.

Following this incident, the organisation’s manager stated that personal abuse, threats and harassment were not acceptable under any circumstances, and the presenter reportedly received substantial support from her co-host, media colleagues and the general public.

Health and safety risks


It goes without saying that abuse from the public occurs on a wide spectrum. At the more severe end of the scale, paramedics, nurses and other healthcare workers are regularly confronted with violence and aggression. Some of it comes from patients, clients or residents, some from visiting friends and family, and some even from bystanders.

WorkSafe Victoria estimates that most healthcare workers have experienced verbal or physical assault at some time or other. This has a negative impact not only on their psychological and physical wellbeing, but also on their job motivation. As a result, this abuse can compromise the quality of care and put healthcare provision at risk. It also leads to substantial financial loss in the health sector.

At the other end of the spectrum, verbal abuse such as swearing, shouting, insults and threats are unfortunately not uncommon for people in public contact roles in a wide range of occupations. Staff may be at risk in offices, customer service centres, clients’ homes, courts, schools, hospitals and many other types of workplaces.

The abuse may also be delivered through cyberspace, in the form of profane, derogatory or offensive use of social media to assault the reputation of the business or individual employees.

Such treatment may aggravate any pre-existing psychological health issues and erode the level of service provided to customers or clients.

Even in the absence of violent physical assaults, abusive behaviour can greatly exacerbate other sources of work-related stress as well as undermining morale and job performance.

Employers’ obligations


Employers have the same responsibilities to manage the risks of abuse from members of the public as they do in relation to other types of abuse, such as violence, bullying or harassment. Staff have the right to feel safe from psychological as well as physical hazards, and if abuse from the public is an issue, management needs to take appropriate measures to eliminate or minimise the problem.

Suitable risk control strategies vary according to the work setting. For example, in banks and other service centres where staff may be at risk from abusive customers and even armed robbers, furniture, fittings and work systems have typically been designed specifically with staff protection in mind. Service personnel are often located out of reach, behind wide counters or protective screens. This approach is known as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, or CPTED.

If offensive use of social media is the issue, management should ask offenders to delete unacceptable material (such as insulting tweets) or block them. If need be, assistance may be sought from the provider of the relevant platform (such as Twitter) in having offensive tweets deleted. It may also be worth considering strategies such as filtering or moderation of feedback to insulate staff from abusive messages.

Whatever the nature of the risk, and whatever strategies are selected to manage it, if staff are in roles or positions that could leave them open to personal abuse, reasonably practicable measures to protect them from it should be put in place, and staff should be given support and training in ways of dealing with such situations.
 

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