Acknowledging workplace violence

As Scotland launches its programme of activities to mark the global campaign of 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, it is timely to reflect on the levels and frequency of violence against public sector workers and challenge any perception that it is an acceptable, occupational hazard.

UNISON believes that public sector workers should be able to come to work without fear of violence, abuse or harassment from patients or clients, their relatives or carers. In most cases, people receiving care will be appreciative towards those who treat them but a minority of people are abusive or violent towards staff.

Since 2006, UNISON Scotland has carried out an annual survey of assaults to public sector workers. Our analysis of the figures received for 2016 shows a total of 41,143 assaults, an increase of 2,684 compared with last year’s figure of 38,279.  women-in-unison

Over the past 10 years, our survey has seen the number of reported incidents of violent assaults almost double. Our surveys have found that care workers faced twice the national average risk of assault, yet the lack of a public outcry would suggest that violence against these staff has in some way been normalised by society.

As a health worker, I see first-hand the trauma staff suffer as a consequence of this unacceptable behaviour, not just the physical but the psychological effects which can have long term implications and in some cases life changing consequences.

The effects are not only directed towards individual staff for violence and aggression towards frontline healthcare staff in the UK is estimated to cost the NHS at least £69m a year in staff absence, loss of productivity and additional security.

In support of our members, UNISON Scotland campaigned for and welcomed the introduction in Scotland of the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005, and its subsequent amendments. The Act makes it an offence for a person to knowingly assault, obstruct or hinder another person providing certain emergency services, for example, a SThis section has no associated Explanatory Notesmember of a fire brigade or a person acting for the Scottish Ambulance Service. UNISON wants to see legislation much wider in scope favouring protection for not just a limited group of emergency workers, but all public service workers.

There remains a huge amount of work to be done to support our public sector workforce; employers will say that they have zero tolerance approaches towards the perpetrators of violence. However, in reality some sectors present particular and increasing challenges. In a care context, where the workforce is predominantly female, patients/clients with conditions impairing cognitive behaviour will need additional controls in place. To meet the ever increasing demands of complex care needs from our communities, there needs to be recognition by employers and Scottish Government that investing in the right numbers and appropriately trained workforce is crucial to ensure staff safety at work.

Accepting violence against public sector staff should not be the norm. It is not part of the job description and employers need to establish safe systems of work, provide information and training on health and safety risks and control measures that support this workforce.

Lilian Macer is the UNISON Scotland Convenor She is also an Employee Director at ‎NHS Lanarkshire