Increasing workplace aggression for retail employees

By Leila Moddel


According to a report released by the National Retail Association, over 88% of Australian retail workers have experienced aggression from customers and incidents of workplace violence have spiked 400% during the pandemic [1]. Working in an environment with exposure to workplace violence can lead to physical and psychological impacts on workers including anxiety, depression, PTSD and stress related illnesses. Employers have a duty of care, to ensure as far as reasonably practicable, the health and safety of workers, while they are at work, and with the increase of workplace violence in the retail industry, it is helpful to revisit work health and safety obligations.

What is workplace violence?

Workplace violence can include:

  • physical assault such as biting, scratching, hitting, kicking, pushing, grabbing and throwing objects;
  • intentionally coughing or spitting on someone;
  • sexual assault or any other form of indecent physical contact; and
  • harassment or aggressive behaviour that creates a fear of violence, such as stalking, verbal threats and abuse, yelling and swearing and can be in person, by phone, email or online.

In 2019 Insurance and Care NSW (icare), a workers’ insurance and advocacy group, released an in-depth review of the causes of workplace violence and aggression and the experiences of retail workers. The workers interviewed identified verbal aggression as the most frequent and damaging form of workplace violence, reporting feelings of helplessness during negative customer interactions. Effects ranged from a negative mood for the day, to enduring effects on the worker’s self-esteem and self-confidence and in cases of extreme cases of workplace violence, long term consequences on their mental health and wellbeing, including hypervigilance, fear and anxiety in the workplace.

What are your obligations as an employer?

Extending on the overall duty of care, under work health and safety laws, employers must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable

  • the provision and maintenance of a work environment without risks to health and safety;
  • the provision and maintenance of safe systems of work
  • the provision of any information, training, instruction or supervision that is necessary to protect all persons from risks to their health and safety arising from work carried out as part of the business or undertaking; and
  • that the health of workers and the conditions at the workplace are monitored for the purpose of preventing illness or injury of workers arising from the conduct of the business.

Employers are also required to engage in consultation, again, so far as is practicable with employees about matters that are likely to, or do, directly impact workers.

Interestingly, in response to the rise in customer aggression during the pandemic, News South Wales and Queensland enacted criminal provisions specifically dealing with behaviour directed at workers including, spitting, coughing or acting in a way that would reasonably be likely to cause apprehension or fear of being exposed to COVID-19. Retail workers have specifically been referenced in the public health order [2]. In both states police may issue significant on the spot fines and in serious cases offenders may be imprisoned.

In order for employers in the retail consumer space to mitigate risks, they must:

  • identify hazards in the workplace;
  • assess the associated risks;
  • implement control measures to eliminate or minimise risks; and
  • regularly review control measures to ensure they remain effective.

In the retail industry, common control measures for workplace aggression include:

  • managing expectations of customers and providing sufficient staff at peak times;
  • ensuring access to the premises is appropriately controlled;
  • limit the amount of cash and valuables held on the premises;
  • putting up signs to reflect that the workplace will not accept any forms of violence or aggression; and
  • train workers in how to deal with difficult customers.

Employers should also consider the support services available, for example, in highly stressful environments, the provision of employee assistance programs may be particularly helpful.

Protecting employees from workplace violence has a beneficial impact in reducing absenteeism and the potential for injury that could result in workers’ compensation claims. While overall, serious workers’ compensation claims in the retail industry are down 28%, compared with 20 years ago, the median time lost by working weeks is up 63%, with median compensation for serious claims increasing by 270%. Overall, the cost of workers’ compensation claims to employers, especially in relation to claims for mental illness, has never been higher [3].

While workplace violence is not a novel hazard in the retail industry, the increased incidence of workplace violence is certainly a reason for revisit hazard identification and risk management strategies.

[1] Health and wellbeing of Australian retail workers, National Retail Association, 2020,

[2] Public Health (COVID-19 Spitting and Coughing) Order (No 4) 2020 (NSW).

[3] Australian Workers Compensation Statistics 2018-19, Safe Work Australia,