Another year, another media campaign about the abuse of retail-sector workers.
Retail union the SDA has released the findings from its annual survey into rates of worker abuse in the retail industry, finding 87% of more than 1000 responding fast-food workers have experienced verbal abuse or aggressive behaviour.
Last year, a survey of over 6,000 retail and fast-food workers found over 85% had experienced verbal abuse from customers at work, while 34% had been threatened over the preceding 12 months.
In the years before, the SDA revealed about half of over 10,000 workers surveyed between 2015 and 2016 experienced violence or workplace abuse.
Things clearly haven’t improved much, despite consecutive years of sustained campaigning trying to tackle the problem.
This year, some workers reported being verbally threatened and even having coffee thrown in their face.
“I’ve had people say things like ‘I’ll meet you out the front’, threatening to fight me. One customer became angry at me and said: ‘I do MMA (mixed martial arts), I could bash you up’,” retail worker Lawrence told the SDA.
Employers undoubtedly have a crucial role to play in addressing retail worker abuse, but typically campaigning has focused on raising awareness among the public about the issue.
For Monroe’s Burgers & Beers co-owner Paul Stephens, dealing with abusive or angry customers is about an appropriate response.
“More than anything else, you can’t control what people walk into your shop with, but you can control your reaction, and that’s going to be your weapon,” Stephens tells SmartCompany.
“As soon as you get defensive it will escalate. Prevention is the best cure.”
The Australian Retailers Association (ARA), which has supported the SDA’s campaign, has held an OH&S roundtable to develop some advice for employers trying to protect workers from abuse.
“Retailers must take a proactive approach to ensure worker safety isn’t at risk,” ARA executive director Russell Zimmerman tells SmartCompany.
Identify work-related violence risks
Employers are advised to get ahead of the curve on potential risks to worker safety by identifying where abuse can occur, how likely it is to occur, and what the consequences should be.
The stakes are high, aside from the staggering rates of abuse, 41% of respondents to the SDA’s survey were minors.
Nearly three quarters (71%) were women, while 32% said the abuse or violence was sexual in nature.
Control the situation
Is it possible to eliminate tasks where there’s a risk of work-related violence? If not, reduce risk by bolstering alarm and security systems, create customer awareness of a zero-tolerance approach and establish emergency plans in partnership with policy.
One major retailer said they established a reporting mechanism that enables the business, police and physical security to intervene when offences occur.
Stephens says there should be no tolerance for abusive customers, and de-escalation should be a priority before things get to that point.
“We try and train our staff to first and foremost by like: ‘Okay cool, how can I help? How do I fix this?’,” he says.
“In some situations, swap out with someone, for that customer sometimes just a different face works.”
Review risk control measures to ensure they’re protecting workers
Employers should regularly review procedures to ensure they’re doing the best possible job of protecting workers, including providing additional training and supervision so workers themselves know abuse and violence should not be tolerated.
Abuse isn’t just verbal either, 28% of respondents to the SDA’s survey said they have experienced physical abuse, including death threats with a weapon.
Almost half (44%) said the abuse they have experienced has affected their mental or physical health.