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November 13, 2009

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National Safety Symposium- Delivering a knock-out blow to violence

The British Crime Survey estimates that there were 397,000 threats of violence and 288,000 assaults by members of the public on UK workers in 2006/07, causing 6404 injuries that were reportable under RIDDOR. Of these, four were fatalities, 932 resulted in major injuries and nearly 5500 caused non-major injury.

But this only scrapes the surface, according to Brodie Paterson, from the department of nursing and midwifery at Stirling University. He told delegates at the National Safety Symposium that at least a third of violent incidents were not reported to employers. This was often because the incident was felt to be too trivial, because the victim felt management wouldn’t act, or because they dealt with it themselves.

Another reason violent incidents are under-reported lies in the fact that the typical perpetrator of violence, certainly in the NHS, is an elderly person in their 80s. Brodie asked: “If you are a care assistant working with an elderly patient with severe dementia, the chances of being assaulted are quite significant. You may have to change the patient, but they might believe you’re sexually interested in them, or you’re invading their personal space, so they scratch you. How many people would bother to report that, particularly if you’ve got to work with the patient again tomorrow?”

Violent occupations

For some people, work-related violence is more of an occupational hazard. Nurses, teachers, prison and police officers, taxi drivers and delivery-van drivers are all high risk because they’re either public-facing, or carry large amounts of cash or valuables.

Justin Tyas, Harrow Council’s health and safety advisor, highlighted the risks faced by council civil enforcement officers who are at risk because their role involves handing out parking tickets: “During my research, I heard some pretty harrowing stories. One guy got hit by a crowbar, another was punched in the face and had to go to hospital. Half of those I interviewed had been physically assaulted. There were some big men who only lasted in the job for six months.”

Justin said public perceptions of civil enforcement officers were, at times, outwardly hostile, often fuelled by the uniform and negative media publicity: “There are occasions where an officer has been ticketing a car and a bystander, who has nothing to do with the car, comes over saying ‘why are you ticketing that car?’ and they get quite aggressive.”

An A&E experience

Being able to communicate effectively is another key factor. Brodie highlighted a night he spent in a London A&E department, and how a microphone on reception was broken, which meant people had to shout their health issues at the receptionist.

“The microphone had been broken for 11 days. So, as if what was happening wasn’t bad enough, you had a receptionist who’d had to put up with this for 11 days, who was having to shout back to make herself heard. Because the hospital was a Public Finance Initiative, if the work cost more than £500 to repair, it had to go before the board, who only met every six weeks.”

Preventing violence

So what can you do to help victims of violence? Justin said rigorous debriefing is important to prevent feelings “bottling up”, but even better is having good managerial support — with managers who would tell their employees not to hand out a ticket if they felt threatened.

Brodie added that people need mechanisms to report bullying, harassment, or violence. And he highlighted the fact that work-related violence can lead to stress and increase the likelihood of burnout — good reasons to treat it seriously.

And Justin advised: “If you’re at the sharp end, like civil enforcement officers are, you have to have good customer service and communication skills. You need competencies to manage situations in the street. You have to know when it’s appropriate to walk away from a situation and when that might be more dangerous.”

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