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Risk in Context

COVID-19: Managing the risk of violence in retail and hospitality

Posted by Emma Morgan December 01, 2020

With the COVID-19 pandemic’s end nowhere in sight, it’s only natural that some people are growing tired of measures introduced to limit the disease’s spread in public places. Unfortunately, objections to state regulations and corporate policies have sometimes led to aggressive behaviour, and even violence against employees, which employers — particularly in the retail and hospitality industries — must plan for and protect against.

A Mounting Danger

As some retail stores, restaurants, and similar businesses have reopened, customers have often been required to wear masks, practice social distancing, wait extended service times, only stay limited times and adhere to other guidelines, such as providing contact details, intended to limit COVID-19’s spread and support contact tracing efforts. In some cases, these rules have been introduced voluntarily by businesses; in others, they’ve been required by law.

Although intended to protect retail and hospitality employees as well as patrons from the virus, these rules have been met by significant resistance from some consumers that at times has led to unpleasant interactions.

While more often manifesting as threats and verbal assaults, this resistance adds to the already significant workplace health and safety risk to these sectors that existed even before the pandemic. For many Australian Work Health and Safety Regulators this was an area of focus pre-COVID-19. The Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) conducted a study of retail and fast food workers between December 2016 and February 2017 and found, “more than 85% of respondents have been subjected to verbal abuse from a customer in the last 12 months”.  

Taking Action

Recognising this growing danger for employees, Safe Work Australia (© Commonwealth of Austr​alia 2020) outlines an Employer’s legal obligation to mitigate these work health and safety risks and includes some control recommendations such as: 

·        separate workers from the public, for example install protective barriers or screens  

  • prevent public access to the premises when people work alone or at night  
  • ·provide workers and others with a safe place to retreat to avoid violence 
  • ·put up signs to reflect that the workplace will not accept any forms of violence and aggression 
  • ·manage expectations of customers and clients with communications about the nature and limits of the products or services you are now providing
  • adapt opening hours if necessary, and clearly communicate this to the public 
  • monitor workers when they are working in the community or away from the workplace, for example a supervisor checks in regularly throughout the shift  
  • evaluate your work practices, in consultation with your workers and their representatives, to see if they contribute to violence and aggression  
  • train workers in how to deal with difficult customers, conflict resolution and when to escalate problem calls to senior staff, including procedures to report incidents 
  • ensure that workers are made aware of their right to cease unsafe work 

Beyond these specific steps, it’s important for employers to create plans that address how to manage potentially violent or aggressive incidents. These plans should outline employees’ potential responses to various scenarios, including when it’s appropriate to engage more senior leaders and when to escalate a situation to the police. Plans should also consider hazards unique to specific locations, such as the number of entrances and exits.

Defusing Tense Situations

Employers should also consider how to balance the desire to protect employees and customers from COVID-19 with the need to avoid conflicts. Consider employee training on where to draw the line — in other words, when it’s best to stop seeking compliance and focus instead on avoiding an aggressive outburst. For example, if a customer insists on not wearing a mask in-store, an employee could offer to shop on their behalf or deliver an order to their vehicle.

In recent months, Marsh has seen an increase in employee training on strategies to defuse tense situations, as well as training to frontline leaders in providing mental health support to their workers.

More broadly, employees should know how to keep customers calm and prevent conflicts from arising — as well as how to deescalate any tense situations. This is especially important as most employees’ pre-pandemic job descriptions likely did not include enforcing store policies under threat of physical harm.

Enforcing Regulations

At the same time, it’s important to consider the consequence of not diligently enforcing COVID-19 prevention policies. Failure to enforce such measures could result in fines or other penalties; and put hospitality and retail operations in jeopardy. Noncompliance could also lead to charges that an employer has breached the jurisdictional Work Health and Safety laws related to Employer duties.  

As the pandemic marches on, even as restrictions continue to ease, employers must continue to guard against workplace violence. To keep employees safe while enforcing government-based health requirements and other preventive policies, it’s important to create specific anti-violence plans and re-train employees to avoid and limit the impact of confrontations arising from the restrictions in place for employees and customers in retail and hospitality workplaces for the foreseeable future.

LCPA number: 20/582

Related to:  Workforce Risks , Australia

Emma Morgan

National WHS Services and Customer Engagement Manager – Recovre

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