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Thomas Ashton Institute for Risk and Regulatory Research

Social Change and Inequalities

How improvements in health and safety can support societal changes to the way work is undertaken

Vision and scope

Image of hands, typing on keyboard

Social change is considered to refer to any significant alterations or transformations that are likely to result in profound consequences within the workplace, and workforce, over time. For example this may include, but not be limited to: technological change; change in business models such as the gig economy and greater numbers of people being ‘new’ to a job; and skills required for the future workplace. 

Work within this theme seeks to understand how social change might impact on the health and safety of the workforce. It incorporates understanding how new models of employment and changes in employment practice can create or mitigate health and safety risks - this will include identifying opportunities to improve models and practices as well as considering the regulations to control them. The theme will also include consideration of the health and safety impact of an ageing workforce, especially in relation to rapid technological change.

The theme has close links with the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing as well as in the social sciences; and with HSE’s science programme on demographics.

Aims and objectives

To provide evidence that contributes to the Government’s Industrial Strategy Ageing Society grand challenge – in ensuring people can enjoy at least 5 extra healthy, independent years of life by 2030, while narrowing the gap between the experiences of the richest and poorest.

To provide evidence that helps to support people to participate in work for longer – for example, by obtaining evidence to influence the health and safety system to tackle new and emerging risks from social change, and prevent ill-health.

To improve understanding of patterns for new and emerging risks arising from social change which may impact on working for longer – enabling  early intervention on risk;

Understanding changes in risk attitudes and behaviours, and how to influence desired behaviours; identifying the best ways to prevent and manage the risks.

Theme leads

  • Kara Ng, The University of Manchester
  • Helen Beers, HSE

Violence and Aggression Research Network (VARN)

What is work-related violence and aggression and why should we be concerned?

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines work-related violence as: “any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work”. This definition includes verbal abuse and threats as well as physical attacks. Health and safety law applies where it is foreseeable that a risk of violence and/or aggression may arise out of, or in connection with, the work activity. Incidents not arising out of, or in connection with, work activity are not covered by health and safety legislation and are therefore beyond HSE’s remit.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) recognises that everyone has the right to a world of work free from violence and harassment. According to the ILO the rates of violence and harassment (both physical and psychological) can rise during a health crisis (such as the COVID-19 pandemic). In addition, organisational change, especially where work has had to be reorganised or the physical work environment has been changed (as has happened during the pandemic) can be factors that increase risk. The World Health Organization’s guidance for health workers refers to exposure to physical and psychological violence as a hazard for front-line health workers during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Stories of members of the public throwing shopping at retail assistants and traffic cones and barriers at road workers, as well as stories of abuse such as spitting and threatening behaviour are concerning. Sadly, the problem is often ‘normalised’ as being ‘just part of the job’, for example, as discussed in a recent SHP article about assaults on NHS workers.

Work-related violence and aggression is an area of growing concern, as incidents can negatively impact on the physical and psychological health of those affected, as well as harming business performance and incurring costs to both business and society.

The aims of the work-related violence and aggression research are to obtain a better picture of the extent of the problem across sectors, to raise awareness, and improve reporting and prevention.

The team are inviting employers to share their professional insights to help raise awareness of the problem. They would like to understand what employers have done to address work-related violence and aggression and how they have done this (e.g. how workers were engaged).

If you would like to find out more, please get in touch. Please provide your name, position in the company, contact details, the name of your organisation and sector you work in.

Read more from the researchers:

Theme membership

  • Colleen Butler (HSE)
  • David Fishwick (HSE)
  • Eleanor Kinman (HSE)
  • Sheena Johnson
  • Nick Warren (HSE)


  • Preventing work-related violence and aggression: improving reporting and influencing employers to address the problem. Sheena Johnson/Helen Beers et al. AMBS UoM Seed corn funding
  • Bioelectronic monitoring of light exposure and circadian rhythms - Wellcome Institutional Strategic Support Fund [W-ISSF] Cross-Faculty Consolidator call led by Centre for Biological Timing (Rob Lucas with Sheena Johnson and Martie van Tongeren
  • Health Framework Projects: Demographics - 2 Rapid Evidence Assessments
  • Fatigue focused proposal with Social Change and Inequalities Theme
  • NIHR Policy Research Policy Research Programme Call on Working Age Health – Possible long COVID19 focus submitting to Round 2 in June 2021