As Victoria reaches its double dose vaccination threshold of 70% of the eligible population this week, many businesses will be permitted to welcome their employees and customers back to their premises as part of the Victorian Government’s reopening roadmap. A key feature of this roadmap is that indoor settings, including restaurants and cafes, will be able to reopen to fully vaccinated workers and patrons. While over 90% of Victorians have, to date, received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, such vaccination requirements can, at times, be divisive, as reflected by recent Melbourne protests.
As many businesses will be required to check vaccination status before allowing people entry to their premises as part of the reopening roadmap, a common concern for employers is that their staff may be subjected to occupational violence and aggression if required to refuse entry to an unvaccinated attendee.
It is therefore important that employers are aware of their obligations in protecting the health and safety of their employees, so far as is reasonably practicable, in light of the risks of potential occupational violence and aggression, as well as the important steps employers can take to reduce the risks of this occurring.
What is Occupational Violence and Aggression?
WorkSafe Victoria defines Occupational Violence and Aggression as when a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in a situation related to their work. It can arise from anywhere – clients, customers, the public or even co-workers and can include:
- eye rolling and sneering
- yelling, swearing, calling names
- standing over someone
- spitting, shoving, tripping, grabbing, hitting, punching
- threats of violence, threats with weapons
- sexual assault
Occupational violence and aggression can have a negative impact on workers’ physical and mental wellbeing and create a negative working environment. As employers have an obligation to provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and free of risks to health, so far as is reasonably practicable, it is important that employers take steps to manage the risks associated with occupational violence and aggression.
What can employers do to reduce occupational violence and aggression in the workplace?
Employers may wish to consider taking the following steps to assist them in meeting their occupational health and safety obligations towards their employees and mitigate the risk of occupational violence and aggression in the workplace:
- Risk Assessment – Identify violence and aggression hazards in your workplace and assess the risks. At present, it is likely that some individuals who are being refused entry due to vaccination status will become agitated and this will be a key hazard employers will need to consider.In most cases, these people will be refused entry on arrival, meaning there is a more significant violence and aggression hazard for front of house employees or those required to verify vaccination status who will typically be on the front line and required to be the first point of contact with these individuals.
- Practical Controls – Implement practical controls in the workplace to eliminate or reduce the risk of occupational violence and aggression, such as:
(a) Placing signage at the entrance of premises which clearly outline only fully vaccinated persons will be permitted entry. Such signs will aim to discourage unvaccinated persons from entering in the first place. Such signage should also remind patrons to be respectful to staff who are simply following public health directions. To this end, the Victorian Government has published posters businesses can display, which can be accessed here.
(b) Placing a barrier such as a lectern or counter between front of house employees or those required to check vaccination status and attendees, where possible, as additional protection should an attendee become violent or aggressive. Ideally, this should be close to the entrance of the premises. At the same time, furniture and partitions should be arranged so movement of employees is not restricted and there is good visibility of all service areas.
(c) Ensuring clear communication regarding vaccination requirements with patrons when bookings are made, to manage expectations that vaccination will be verified upon arrival. This can also be communicated via the company website and social media channels.
(d) Having a proper system for assessment and screening of patrons for vaccination status (eg the assessment is done by a suitably qualified and appropriate person and includes an assessment of occupational violence risks).
(e) Providing training and supporting staff development in de-escalation and processes for early intervention and management. This can include providing staff with information and training about identifying signs of violence, verbal and non-verbal communication strategies, encouraging reasoning, listening carefully, acknowledging concerns.
(f) Promoting a culture that does not accept violence and aggression. This includes encouraging reporting of occupational violence and aggression, acting on these reports, investigating incidents and reviewing existing practical controls regularly.
(g) Establishing a clear process to follow should de-escalation techniques fail, including escalation to management, or the authorities if required and which should include encouraging a member of staff not to compromise their own safety if a patron becomes unreasonably aggressive.
(h) Ensuring other appropriate measures such as emergency duress alarms and CCTV systems are in place, while ensuring workplaces are well lit, particularly for venues that are open in the evening.
- Consultation and Education – Consult with employees early and regularly to educate them on the practical controls implemented by the business to eliminate or reduce the risks of occupational violence and aggression and what to do if there is an instance of occupational violence and/or aggression. Being proactive in this regard will be important, as many staff may be feeling hesitant returning to work given the vaccination verification requirements.
- Monitor and Review – Monitor and review hazards and practical control measures to ensure prevention measures are working as planned, and where necessary, adjusted and improved.
- Support – Support employees who have been exposed to occupational violence and aggression in the workplace, including by conducting regular wellbeing check ins, offering counselling, debriefing sessions, time off work and other measures as necessary. Managers should be upskilled to debrief with staff who have experienced occupational violence and aggression, with referral to Employee Assistance Programs if available.
If you require support in implementing measures to address the risk of occupational violence and aggression, please contact HR Legal.