Written by: Emma Dawson, Employment Relations Expert
Frontline workers in industries such as retail and hospitality may be exposed to a new trend in workplace safety hazards, as their role as the ‘vaccination police’ puts them in conflict with potentially hostile customers.
As businesses in New South Wales open to the fully vaccinated, and with the rest of the country edging closer to vaccination targets, employers must ensure, to the best of their ability, the correct safeguards are in place to protect their workers from threatening situations, or risk being liable for related workplace safety claims.
This looming potential rise in workplace violence is not lost on business owners, as data from Employsure’s dedicated employer Advice Line reveals a 37% increase in risk-related management calls from July to September compared with the same quarter last year.
Employers have a health and safety duty to eliminate or minimise the risk of a hazard occurring in the workplace. Hazards can take the form of customer aggression (as this may result in physical or psychological harm) and therefore the business has a duty to minimise it to the lowest possible level.
“Clients have told us they’ve already seen an increase in workplace violence over the past few months when enforcing COVID rules, and this is expected to get worse as workplaces open exclusively for the fully vaccinated,” said Employsure senior health and safety manager Larry Drewsen.
“While of course business owners need to comply with government health orders, putting them, as well as their young workers, in the firing line of aggressive customers can be detrimental to their physical and mental wellbeing.
“It is more important now than ever before for business owners to be proactive and ensure the correct control measures are implemented to minimise the risk of physical and psychological harm in the workplace.”
Minimising the risk:
As they reopen, employers should undertake a risk assessment to identify whether customer aggression is a likely hazard that could exist in the workplace. This process should be done in consultation with employees.
If a potential risk is found, there are several control measures that can be introduced to help minimise it. This can include:
- Installing screens or barriers between customers and workers if practical
- Ensuring, where possible, employees do not work alone
- Implementing policies to deal with customer aggression and mental health impacts
- Preparing a safe operating procedure so that staff are aware of how to handle aggressive customers
- Training staff to follow safe operating procedures so they know what to do in the event of a threatening situation is critical, as is ensuring staff have access to an employee assistance program service should they suffer psychological harm as a result of customer aggression.
Do you have a mental health policy in place? Download a free template here.
These coming months will be a test for all employers and there will undoubtedly be backlash from those who may not want to disclose their medical records.
In the case of New South Wales, the police force has said it will respond to calls from business owners who have to turn people away, however, officers won’t be actively walking through private businesses ensuring people are double vaccinated. The onus must therefore fall on employers to set expectations with customers of the condition of entry.
This may include placing a notice on the entrance stating aggressive behaviour will not be tolerated. Employers can also choose to implement a customer complaint policy for handling customer issues.
“Business owners won’t be able to turn a blind eye to this and must be prepared for a rise in complaints and potential aggression from customers,” continued Mr Drewsen.
“Most people will be reasonable and compliant, but for the minority, having the correct expectations set in a business, and having staff better trained on what to do in the unlikely event, can help diffuse a potentially violent situation.”
With workplace vaccinations becoming the biggest HR issue of the year, Employsure’s Employer Vaccination Kit contains the essentials to prepare your business, includes, guides, fact sheets and templates policies. For a more confidential chat, call Employsure’s Employer Helpline for free initial advice: 1300 207 182.