Threat of violence at work
Workplace violence refers to physical violence or the threat of violence at work. It can involve threats, harassment or intimidation, or physical violence, such as pushing, grabbing, hitting, kicking or, in extreme cases, attacks with a weapon. The Finnish Occupational Safety and Health Act obligates employers to take action to prevent workplace violence.
Violence or the threat of violence in the workplace affects employees’ well-being at work even though only a small number of incidents lead to physical injury. The threat of violence can also be a source of work-related stress even in workplaces where there have been no violent incidents.
Threatening situations can occur in any type of workplace. Sectors of the economy where workplace violence is more prevalent than in others include
- health care (interaction with patients)
- social services
- retail, and
In some sectors, dealing with the threat of violence is part of the job description. Police officers, security guards and psychiatric nurses, for example, interact with violent individuals on a daily basis.
In other sectors, threatening situations are rarer, and staff may not know how to deal with them. Examples include the retail sector, social security offices, bars and restaurants, home-based care work and public transport.
Prevention of evident threats of violence
Factors that increase the risk of violence or the threat of violence include
- working alone, especially in the evenings or at night
- interacting with intoxicated individuals
- handling of medicines, money or valuables
- processing and deciding on applications for benefits or individuals’ rights, and
- working in restless areas or remote locations.
Employers have a duty to evaluate the risk of violence inherent in their employees’ work and its impact on their safety and health. If the assessment shows that the risk of violence is considerably higher than average, the risk is considered to be evident. Employers must evaluate how prevalent violence is in their sector of the economy and the work that their employees perform according to statistics and whether any of the aforementioned factors that increase the risk of violence are present.
Where there is an evident risk of violence, the employer must take all reasonable steps to prevent violent incidents. Where there is an evident risk of violence and no way to prevent violent incidents, the employer must bring in appropriate security or technology.
Risks involved in working alone
Working alone should be avoided if there is an evident risk of violence. If this is not possible, the employer must use technological solutions and preventive measures to reduce the risk of violence. Preventive measures can be introduced in respect of, for example,
- the work environment
- working hours
- staff training, and
Follow your employer’s instructions
Make sure that you attend all training courses organised by your employer and read all the instructions provided. Practise how to act in an emergency. Follow your employer’s instructions. Let your employer know if you find their instructions impractical.
Make sure that you are familiar with the alarm systems in your workplace and that you know how to use them. Let your employer know if you notice any weaknesses in their security arrangements or access to help.
Report all violent incidents
Let your employer know about any violent or threatening situations in the workplace. This will allow your employer to keep track of how frequent violent incidents are and what they typically entail. Your employer can use the information to explore ways to prevent similar incidents in the future. The information is also useful for assessing whether more security measures are needed and what the priorities should be.
Evaluating the risk of violence
Employers are responsible for evaluating the risk of workplace violence inherent in their employees’ work and its impact on their safety. All risks of violence relating to individuals’ work tasks, the work environment and practical arrangements in the workplace need to be identified and examined.
The assessment is designed to give the employer enough information to be able to decide what action to take and in what order. The aim is to eliminate as many of the identified risks as possible and to evaluate the significance of any risks that cannot be eliminated.
Employers have an obligation to involve their employees in the risk assessment process. Occupational safety and health personnel and occupational health care professionals should also be consulted on their areas of expertise.
Objectives of risk assessment
Employers need to establish
- whether their sector of the economy is considered a high-risk sector
- what kinds of violent incidents are likely to occur in the workplace
- how safe their employees’ working conditions are and which elements of the workplace promote safety and which elements are a risk
- any security risks or weaknesses in the workplace that need to be eliminated
- what changes should be introduced in the workplace to increase safety (e.g. emergency exits, panic buttons, security guards, CCTV surveillance, quick-lock doors, removal of projectiles and dangerous objects, and locking up of goods attractive to thieves, such as alcohol)
- what kind of a code of conduct is needed to ensure that employees follow safe procedures
- what kinds of emergency drills should be organised in the workplace
- how incidents should be followed up on and corrective action documented
- what kinds of continuous evaluation and monitoring procedures are needed to increase safety in the workplace
- which employees need regular health examinations, and
- how occupational health care professionals can be involved in development efforts.
Steps must then be taken to manage and minimise the risks identified in the course of the assessment.
Preventing the risk of violence by means of workspace design
The risk of violence can be reduced through the choice of procedures and workspace design. Employers have an obligation to provide their employees with procedures and workspaces that are as safe as possible and that help to prevent violent incidents.
Key considerations include, among others,
- the layout of the workspace
- the locations of entrances and exits
- the positioning of furniture, and
- signage and customer-service arrangements.
Security systems can help to reduce the probability and consequences of violent incidents. Employees’ workspaces in facilities where there is an evident risk of violence must be equipped with alarm systems and communication solutions that enable employees to get help quickly.
The alarms must be designed and positioned so that they are easy for employees to use in an emergency. It must be possible for employees to call for help discreetly, and the operation of the alarms must be checked at regular intervals.
Ensuring that employees follow safe procedures
Employers have a duty to train and instruct their employees to perform their work safely. Employees need to be familiar with the risks inherent in the workplace and their work and with factors that can lead to violence or threats of violence. Employees also need to be familiar with safe procedures in order to prevent dangerous situations.
It is important for employees to know what to do if a situation gets out of hand. Employees’ ability to deal with violent incidents can be improved by means of regular exercises. Training should ideally complement employees’ professional competence, such as their interpersonal skills and ability to deal with difficult customers.
Where there is an evident risk of violence, the employer must put procedures in place for dealing with violent incidents. The procedures must be clear and easy to understand, and they should ideally address
- different kinds of dangerous situations
- how to act in the event of specific kinds of dangerous situations, and
- what steps to take after a violent incident or a dangerous situation and the division of responsibilities in respect of, for example,
- providing first aid and seeking medical help for the victim
- reporting the incident to the police and, if necessary, the regional occupational safety and health authority
- coordinating follow-up, and
- following up on the incident in order to determine whether any corrective action needs to be taken.
Workplace violence or threats of violence can damage employees not only physically but also psychologically.
Employees who work in high-risk environments must have immediate access to help after a violent incident. Follow-up must be initiated within the first two days. The aim is to allow the victim to resume their normal routines both at work and outside of work as quickly as possible and to prevent long-term psychological trauma.
The first point of contact should be the employer’s occupational health care provider. In addition to attending to the care of individual victims, employers should ideally call in an expert to assess the impact of the incident on the work community as a whole. Discussing the incident afterwards with colleagues and the management is also important.
Reporting serious violent incidents to the authorities
Pursuant to the Criminal Code of Finland, the public prosecutor can bring charges for petty assault if the offence was directed at a person due to his or her employment and the offender is not part of the personnel at the place of employment. These kinds of offences can be reported to the police not only by the victim but also a representative of the victim’s employer. Employers therefore have a legal right to report violent incidents to the police on behalf of their employee, if the employee is unable or does not want to report the incident themselves.
All serious cases of workplace violence must be reported to both the police and the regional occupational safety and health authority.
- Section 27 – Threat of violence
- Section 12 – Content of occupational health care
- Chapter 3, Section 9 – Occupational safety and health
- Section 3 – Especially harmful work
- Section 2 – Special risk of illness
- Section 8 – List of examples: night work
- Chapter 21, Section 16 – Right to bring charges