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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

Under attack—Workplace Violence

Is workplace violence beyond hazard management?


Sunny Singh has been driving taxis in Auckland for two-and-a-half years.

It’s a dangerous job, he says, and neither the taxi companies nor the police give drivers any support.

“When I was driving in the city, in three months it happened four times that people ran away without paying, but only once did the police turn up.”

Police respond to only one in ten complaints from drivers, he says, yet companies won’t get involved, saying problems are a police matter.

“All the companies do is write an incident report, and that’s why most of the time drivers don’t want to tell them what’s happened and try to sort it out themselves.”

In his early months on the job Singh dealt with threats and racial abuse as well as fare defaulters. Things have been better since he shifted his base from the central city to the airport, but only a few weeks ago he was accosted by a group of drunks when collecting a passenger in the early hours of the morning.

“I called 111 at 3.30 in the morning and lodged a complaint with the police. I received a call back at 9 o’clock wanting to know if the drunks were still there!” Singh says the recession has hit the industry hard and the drivers he knows could not afford protective gear for their cabs.

“It’s obvious we need screens and cameras, but the government will have to pay, or give us a 50% subsidy and a 50% loan. No one could afford it otherwise.”

Work-related homicides have been much in the news of late. At the same time as police were investigating the death of South Auckland taxi driver Hiren Mohini, who was stabbed on January 31, the courts were dealing with the aftermath of three other workplace killings – a Manurewa liquor store owner shot during a robbery in June 2008, a Christchurch taxi driver stabbed in December the same year, and a teenage courier driver shot by a police officer during an armed offenders incident on Auckland’s north western motorway in January 2009.

In every one of these incidents the victim was at work when he died, and in the case of the motorway shooting, the person responsible was also on the job. Yet, according to statistics supplied to Safeguard by the Department of Labour, none of these deaths has been officially classed as work-related.

The stabbing of a Manurewa dairy worker in January 2009 was also excluded from the list, as was the strangulation of an inmate at Auckland’s Paremoremo prison the following March, yet the deaths of a rest home patient who fell from a hoist, a campsite resident who fell from a footbridge, and people who suffered accidents while mountain biking, climbing, dune boarding and participating in a variety of other outdoor pursuits were included.

In the last two years the only violent deaths that the department has recognised as work-related are those of three policemen, two of them shot in the line of duty, and the thirds truck by a vehicle while laying road spikes.

Gathering data

Of course it is well known that the department’s statistics do not provide a full picture of workplace fatalities, so does it make any difference that the work relationship of the other homicides went unrecognised?

In terms of the specific incidents, the answer is “probably not”. The unpredictable nature of violence makes it a hazard that will always be difficult to manage, and it is unlikely any of the parties involved would have faced enforcement action under the HSE Act.

But in terms of the need to better understand and manage work-related violence, Massey University researcher Dr Bevan Catley is in no doubt that it does matter.

Catley, who has been studying violence in the workplace for some years, says very little is known about the scale of the problem in New Zealand because there has been no systematic collection of data by any agency.

“If you’re not collecting the data you can’t manage it. We know workplace violence is a problem in many other countries, but the extent of the problem here is pretty much unknown because there is no data around it.”

High-risk jobs

A 2008 pilot study, conducted by Catley and his colleagues from Massey’s Healthy Work Group, produced findings that, in the light of recent events, are chilling.

A survey of 63 HR managers from a variety of organisations found the sector most likely to have suffered assaults resulting in lost time injury was passenger transport (12 incidents causing a total of 60 lost days), while retail trade had had fewer injuries but the most lost time (3 incidents causing 202 lost days).

Despite the small sample size, Catley says the study’s findings are generally consistent with overseas data, particularly in the identification of taxi driving as a high risk occupation. In the US, Canada, and South Africa taxi drivers are second only to police officers in their likelihood of being killed on the job, a trend Catley sees as unsurprising.

“They tick a lot of risk boxes – working alone, handling cash, night shifts, intoxicated clients, travelling to isolated areas…”

The Healthy Work Group is now seeking funding for a more extensive study to give a fuller picture of where workplace violence is occurring, and identify ways of managing the hazard.

“There is a plethora of preventive measures being proposed, but little is known about their effectiveness. There needs to be a lot more conceptual work done around the issue, to better inform the policy and practical sides of things.”

Police take precedence

Department of Labour chief advisor health and safety Dr Geraint Emrys says the department does record workplace homicides, “providing they fit the criteria”, but is aware that such cases are not always appropriately reported.

“In almost all cases the police investigation should take precedence, but the department makes preliminary enquiries when it becomes aware, or is notified, of an incident. These enquiries establish whether there is a health and safety issue which requires further investigation, or whether the criminal activity obviates a possible investigation.”

In the 2008/2009 business year the department was notified of 32 violent incidents, including the deaths of the three policemen, he says. Preliminary investigations established that 15 of these notifications did not warrant further action. The remaining 17, which received full investigation, involved eight healthcare workers, four police officers, two prison officers, two drivers and one retail worker. While no enforcement action resulted, Emrys says a number of written warnings, prohibition and improvement notices have been served in relation to violent incidents over the past five years.

The department has also been involved in a variety of initiatives – both at national office and local level – to help industry and community groups deal with the threat of violence to workers, Emrys says. In late 2008 it was part of a working party set up by Minister of Transport Steven Joyce to investigate safety protocols for the taxi industry following the murder of Christchurch driver Abdulrahman Ikhtiari.

Attack unreported

The department’s reliance on serious harm notifications as a means of monitoring workplace violence makes it almost inevitable that some of the highest risk occupational groups slip beneath the radar.

The same factors that make taxi drivers and small retailers vulnerable to attack – self-employment, lone work, and, in some cases, social isolation because of limited English skills – also make them unlikely to contact the authorities when trouble occurs.

Tim Reddish, chief executive of the Taxi Federation, says all but the most serious attacks on drivers go unreported because they won’t take time off the road to go through a formal complaints procedure.

“I guarantee serious harm incidents aren’t reported to the DoL – in fact they’re probably not even reported to the taxi company. You go and talk to drivers and they’ll go: “Oh, I’ve had a bit of a bash from a passenger”, but they just carry on working.

“If they report it to the police that takes time, then they have to go to court, and it ends up costing them.”

Reddish met with the Department of Labour after the Christchurch murder, but says nothing came of their discussions.

“They were looking at getting some safety protocols in place, but I think they decided it was all too hard because of the way the industry is structured.”

With close to 80% of drivers working as self-employed owner-operators, in a cooperative relationship with a taxi company, there is little infrastructure through which safety measures can be implemented.

“The bottom line is that you will never get anything done unless you make it compulsory. Most drivers are in denial that anything could ever happen to them, but the biggest thing is they won’t spend money unless they have to, regardless of their own safety.”

Security cameras

Reddish pushed to have security measures made compulsory after the Christchurch killing, and was bitterly disappointed when the Minister of Transport, who oversees the industry, declined his request.

“We’ve been talking about it again after the latest killing and I think he’s bought that argument now. The very sad thing is that it has taken another murder to get things moving.”

“Cameras had been compulsory in several Australian states for a while, but because it is a regulated industry over there, the government pays for them.

“There will probably be some drivers who will leave the industry rather than buy a camera, but it’s still the right way to go because in Australia they’ve reduced attacks on drivers by about 85%.”

Despite these encouraging statistics, Auckland lawyer Grant Nicholson questions whether installation of a security camera is actually a “practicable step” under the HSE Act.

He suggests barriers as a better alternative from a legal perspective, although Reddish says drivers dislike them because they limit interaction with passengers and interfere with air conditioning.

Different objectives

Nicholson questions the low numbers of HSE Act prosecutions relating to violence (see box story). He feels the DoL may be cutting employers too much slack in the area, and allowing their investigations to piggyback on police enquiries, despite the agencies’ different objectives.

“The department appears to take the view that violent attacks are almost an intervening cause that businesses can’t be expected to guard against.”

Nicholson says existing poor safety standards in both the taxi industry and small retail workplaces would pose a problem for the DoL should it decide to bring a prosecution in these industries.

“If they singled someone out for prosecution the response would immediately be: ‘Hey, we’re doing the same as everyone else. It might be possible to protect against the risk of violence, but it’s not reasonable because it would put us at a competitive disadvantage.’

Working with industries

The only solution, he says, is to work with the industries as a whole so better safety becomes the standard. He suggests there could be some benefits in encouraging one or more of the major taxi companies to take a leadership role by setting up good incident reporting procedures and incorporating safety provisions into driver contracts.

Soon-to-be implemented changes to the HSE Act that will require multi-employer workplaces to collaborate on safety issues may also have implications for the industry, he says.

“There is at least an argument that once that comes into force taxi companies would be obliged to get together with drivers and cab owners to talk about the issues.

“It’s not an easy problem to deal with, but I’m sure there are processes they could put in place to minimise the risk.”

What processes can the employer of a vulnerable worker use to minimise the risk of violence?

According to Catley the answer is to take a systematic approach.

“Make sure you have a good risk management plan in place.

“Think ahead and be prepared. Think hard about what the hazards are and how likely are they to occur so you can make some informed decisions – and keep records.

“Get workers to report incidents, because without information you can’t have informed decision making.

“It’s all unglamorous stuff, but it provides good foundations that will help you make the right safety decisions.”

Violence: the prosecution record

Safeguard CourtBase lists only five HSE Act prosecutions relating to acts of violence, the most recent of which was before the courts seven years ago.

Three of the cases relate to workplace skylarking that went wrong, one to an altercation between a site foreman and a contractor, and the fifth to a serious assault by a psychiatric patient on her caregiver.

In all but one of the incidents the prosecution was brought against an individual under s19(b), but in the case of the caregiver there was a s6 charge against the healthcare organisation that employed her.

The individual penalties ranged between $500 and $2000, with most of the money being paid to the victim. The s6 fine was $10,000, all of which was awarded to the injured woman.


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