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Thomas Ashton Institute for Risk and Regulatory Research

Violence and Aggression Research Network (VARN)

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


Older man waving a metal crutch at a nurse

The Health and Safety Executive 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, the work activity are not covered by health and safety legislation and are therefore beyond HSE’s remit. For example, the following situations would not be included in this definition: personal disputes between workers and other people, such as family members, violence between people not at work, such as customers or service users.

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. Organisational change can also lead to increased work-related violence, especially where work has had to be reorganised or the physical work environment has been changed. The World Health Organization’s guidance for health workers refers to exposure to physical and psychological violence as one of the hazards for front-line health workers during the COVID-19 outbreak (with the others being: occupational infections with COVID-19; skin disorders and heat stress from prolonged use of PPE; exposures to toxins because of increased use of disinfectants; psychological distress; and chronic fatigue).

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 and may have critical consequences. 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.

Network aims

The VARN’s aims are to better understand the extent to which violence and aggression is a problem across sectors, as well as to raise awareness and to improve reporting and control of incidents.

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).

Our work

Workshop: Third-party violence and aggression in the workplace

Work-related violence and aggression was identified as an area of interest for the Social Change and Inequalities theme within the Thomas Ashton Institute (TAI). A meeting between TAI, HSE policy leads, and industry stakeholders confirmed the value of research in this area, and funding to undertake a small research study was obtained. This report presents a summary of the study methodology and findings.

The risk of work-related violence and aggression from members of the public, customers, clients, patients, service users and students etc. towards a person at work is a growing concern. The problem is particularly prevalent in sectors such as retail, waste and recycling, transport, education, and health and social care. There is evidence that incidents increased during the Covid-19 pandemic, with restrictive measures and the shortage of necessary items, contributing to a backlash against staff.

Under-reporting within organisations is an issue, meaning that the problem is not fully understood, and employers can be ill-equipped to prevent incidents.

This research aimed to improve knowledge and understanding about the problem. It proactively demonstrates how the UK is fulfilling its obligations, and implementing the requirements of, the 2019 ILO convention on eliminating violence and harassment in the world of work.

Workshop: Work-related violence and aggression in a social care setting

The workshop was an opportunity to explore the topic of work-related violence and aggression in social care and share information on how different organisations tackle instances of workplace violence and aggression and to share best practice.

The session was aimed at social care managers and health and safety representatives, as we were trying to gauge the scale of violence and aggression rather than gather individual examples.

The workshop found that:

  • Nearly half of participants said that workers were experiencing violence and aggression on a daily basis.
  • Violence and aggression incidents are under reported within organisations, particularly verbal abuse.
  • The number one impact of violence and aggression on workers was stress and mental health conditions (79.5% of participants).

The impact of body worn cameras on incidents of violence and aggression in civil enforcement

Through the VARN network, researchers had the opportunity to work with an organisation who wished to gain insight into the impact of the use of body-worn video cameras on violence and aggression incidents on civil enforcement officers (commonly referred to as traffic wardens).

The data included 689 incident reports of violence and aggression. Incident reports were subjected to qualitative thematic analysis to explore how these incidents were explained and experienced by those involved, as well as testing the relationships between the incidents, the environment in which they took place, other measures used and the longer-term outcomes resulting from incidents.

In Summary

The data has not allowed a definitive conclusion as to whether cameras act as an effective deterrent in terms of the frequency of incidents, as it is impossible to know how many incidents cameras are preventing and it is difficult to ascertain whether the higher numbers of reports within camera-user areas is proportionate to the size of those specific workforces.

City comparisons potentially signal that body-worn cameras do have some impact on frequency of certain types of violence and aggression, although they also have the potential to provoke other types, particularly when the equipment is targeted.

The recording of evidence was a valuable advantage when engaging with police services, and those using cameras had much greater success with police interactions than those without.

Further research could investigate unreported positive outcomes resulting from cameras preventing escalation to gain an understanding of the efficacy of BWCs.

Get Involved

If you would like to join the network, please complete the short form here: Join VARN

Network leads