Where organisations succeed (and fail) in managing workplace violence

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Friday, 22 April, 2022 - 12:45
Industry news
National News

There has been a slow but noticeable positive change in both awareness of the risk of workplace violence as well as the commitment to addressing it, according to an expert in the area.

While this increased awareness is welcome and a positive step, unfortunately, the risk of occupational violence is still poorly managed – at least compared with how well traditional health and safety risks are managed, said Joe Saunders, national practice lead for R2S Violence Prevention.

“I’ve been involved in workplace violence prevention since 2004, working across a number of industries in three states and now consulting to organisations throughout Australia and the Pacific,” he said.

“While some industries such as healthcare, law enforcement and private security have seemingly always acknowledged and attempted to manage the risk of violence against their personnel, now we are seeing most public-facing industries including workplace violence on their risk registers to some degree.”

Saunders, who was speaking ahead of the AIHS National Health and Safety Conference which will be held from 25-26 May 2022, said while some organisations do a great job, a dearth of true workplace violence experts has led to many overburdened safety managers having to treat a risk they don’t understand fully.

Saunders also said there are three common challenges associated with managing workplace violence – the first of which is a “it’s just ‘part of the job’ culture.”

“Perhaps the biggest hurdle we still face in addressing workplace violence is the ignorant ‘part of the job’ culture that short-circuits reporting, hinders uptake of new programs and undermines the effectiveness of controls,” he said.

“Literally nothing else will work properly unless the organisational culture supports it.”

A second challenge is a lack of expert knowledge, and Saunders said it is unfair to expect that a safety manager will have specialist knowledge of how to approach a multi-faceted risk like workplace violence.

“Due to a lack of subject matter expertise, well-meaning safety practitioners will understandably fall back to their comfort zone,” he said.

“For some, this might be writing policies and position statements. For others, it might be training. For some, it might be engineering controls. Despite the best of intentions, this approach is always incomplete.”

A third challenge is a lack of cooperation and information sharing, and Saunders said most large organisations will be surprised to find out how much knowledge they have within their own personnel.

However, he said that counts for nothing if various centres of knowledge do not communicate with each other.

“Managing the risk of workplace violence requires cooperation and information sharing between safety, security, HR, legal and various other stakeholder groups,” he said.

“If institutional silos prevent that from occurring, it is impossible to address the risk with maximal effectiveness.”

There are a number of steps that can be taken to address these challenges, and Saunders said it is important to firstly accept that workplace violence is a problem that can be solved.

“First and foremost, we have to approach the challenge knowing that victory is possible. While we may never completely eliminate the risk of violence, especially in higher-risk industries, we absolutely can make things safer than they are now,” he said.

“Overcoming the toxic and counter-productive ‘nothing we can do about it’ culture has to be priority number one for any safety professional looking to address the risk of workplace violence.”

Saunders said it is also important to change any cultures of acceptance of workplace violence.

“It’s fascinating to look at history and see what behaviours used to be acceptable that seem abhorrent to us now,” he said.

“In the safety world, consider the risks that construction workers took 70 years ago. It would make most of us squirm to think about putting workers thirty metres in the air without fall protection.

“And the attitude towards this might sound familiar: ‘if you don’t like the risk, pick a different career.’ Clearly, gravity hasn’t changed.”

However, attitudes towards the risk certainly have and Saunders said the same point must be reached with workplace violence.

While the risk of violence will always be present for some professions, he said this doesn’t mean accepting negligence or ignoring a responsibility to make workers as safe as possible.

Saunders also said it is important to build a multi-disciplinary team and establish lines of open communication: “you absolutely will not know everything, and if your treatments are limited by your own expertise you’ll always fall short of where you could be,” he said.

“Your safety team will have great, relevant knowledge. Your security team will also have valuable insights.

“The same goes for your various operational teams, HR team, learning and development team and so on.”

One of the most productive steps is establishing a dedicated workplace violence prevention committee made up of representatives from these various disciplines, and Saunders said this will allow for silos to be broken down, ideas to be shared, data and trends to be considered, and real actionable steps to materialise.

Saunders will be speaking at the AIHS National Health and Safety Conference, which will be held from 25-26 May 2022. For more information call (03) 8336 1995, email or visit the event website.