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Violence at work — is it time for specific legislation to protect retail workers?

In 2019/2020, there were almost 700,000 workplace incidents which comprised 389,000 threats and 299,000 assaults.


Evidence from a number of recent surveys demonstrates high and, in some cases, rising levels of abuse, threats and physical assaults in the workplace. We examine both the scale of the problem and the arguments for and against the introduction of specific legislation to protect retail workers.

Definition, statistics and causes

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) definition of violence in the workplace remains:

“Any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work”.

As such, this definition includes verbal abuse or threats alongside physical violence. We have analysed a variety of data sources to understand the scale:

  • The annual USDAW survey was published on 3 March 2022. This survey of almost 3,500 retail staff revealed 90% of retail workers surveyed had been verbally abused. Some 64% had been threatened and 12% physically assaulted. 61% were not confident that reporting abuse, threats and violence would make a difference.
  • The British Retail Consortium in its 2022 Retail Crime Survey reported that an average of 455 retail workers were abused each day — up 7% from 2018/2019.
  • Evidence given to the Home Affairs Select Committee from the Association of Convenience Stores revealed similar data — namely 89% of retail workers having experienced some form of abuse.
  • The Co-operative Group in evidence to the same committee advised that incidents of verbal abuse in its stores had risen 40-fold since 2015.

For COVID-19 related reasons, the HSE did not report violence at work data in its Annual Summary Statistics which was published in December 2021. However, in the previous year, 2019/2020, there were almost 700,000 workplace incidents which comprised 389,000 threats and 299,000 assaults.

Whilst the absence of HSE statistics for 2020/2021 makes comparison difficult, the general tenor of the evidence given to the Home Affairs Select Committee alongside both the British Retail Consortium and USDAW surveys suggests a problem which is growing and which has been made worse by the need to enforce governmental guidance on both face coverings and social distancing during the pandemic.

Out with COVID-19, the consensus of the opinion is that the causes of workplace violence are primarily driven by shoplifting, substance eviction and enforcing the law on under-age sales. There are links in some instances to organised crime groups.

Is violence at work under reported?

There appears to be a growing evidence base to suggest that not only do many workers not report incidents to their employers in the first place — primarily as they do not believe their employers will do anything about it — but also of a reluctance for employers not to report incidents to the police. Again, the reason given is that employers feel that the police will either not respond or not respond effectively. The 2022 USDAW survey specifically highlights the scale of under-reporting.

What protection is currently afforded to (retail) workers?

The current guidance to prevent workplace harassment was drawn up in 2006 following input from a variety of bodies to include the CBI,TUC, HSE, ACAS, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Partnership of Public Employers.

This guidance requires organisations to:

  • Assess the risks, decide what should be done to prevent or control the risks  and develop a clear management plan.
  • Establish clear grievance and disciplinary procedures.
  • Consult their workforce and any representatives.
  • Ensure everyone is aware of the organisation’s harassment and violence policy.
  • Make a clear statement to staff and service users that harassment, violence, abuse will not be tolerated and
  • also to make clear what constitutes unacceptable behaviour.

Employers have a duty under the RIDDOR Regulations to report any act of non-consensual assault, in addition to owing duties under the Management Regulations.

Perpetrators face criminal sanctions under a variety of Acts including from The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 if serious management failures result in a gross breach of duty of care.

Other protections and sanctions are found within The Public Order Act 1986, The Criminal Justice Public Order Act 1994 and The Protection From Harassment Act 1997.

Is stand-alone legislation required for retail workers?

The argument against was simply articulated by Minister Chris Philp referring to the existing legislation (above) and stating that such behaviour was “already criminal” with the stated aim ‘to get more convictions instead of introducing new specific legislation’.

This view was largely shared by the police forces which gave evidence to the Select Committee with several suggesting instead that sentencing guidelines for judges should be more specific.

These views are however contrary to those of the British Retail Consortium, retail unions and the overall conclusions reached by the Home Affairs Select Committee in their report published in June 2021. In it they suggest that specific legislation would increase awareness, lead to increased reporting and enforcement and provide stand-alone statistics to allow progress to be monitored.

The introduction of bespoke legislation to protect retail workers in Scotland last year, The Protection of Workers (Scotland) Act 2021, has however not gone unnoticed. It remains too early to conclude whether this has been successful in either encouraging reporting or in driving down instances of violence in the workplace. Recent BBC reports suggest that Police Scotland were investigating 285 incidents reported to them between August and November 2921.


It is understood and appreciated that a depleted workforce has meant that prioritising responses to incidents has been ever more crucial for the police in recent years. However, the risk is that if employers and employees continue to under-report incidents in the retail workplace, a lack of sanctions leads to a growing escalation of incidents, irrespective of changing governmental guidance on face coverings or social distancing. Whilst advancements in technology, for example body worn cameras and headsets to improve internal communication, may help address some of the issues, they will however come at a cost to retailers. The BRC rightly points to an existing £1.2 billion total cost to retailers of crime prevention measures.

Following Scotland’s legislative example may however prove to be a more cost-effective way of both increasing awareness and the reporting of incidents and thus increasing criminal prosecution of offenders. Retail workers played a vital if largely unsung role in the country’s response to the pandemic. Protection via specific legislation may be a small way in which the English and Welsh Governments can show their respect.

For guidance on health and safety within the workplace, contact our health and safety lawyers.

To find out more about our wider legal offering to retailers, contact our retail solicitors.