Other health professionals - Council housing services staff
Work-related violence case studies
Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council serves a diverse area east of Birmingham. This case study focuses on the Council's Housing Services Division.
The Division employs approximately 375 people including housing officers, surveyors, clerical staff, maintenance staff, cashiers, project managers, rent arrears collectors, caretakers and sheltered housing wardens. It manages 12 000 council properties and deals with requests and complaints from council tenants.
The type of work varies. For example, housing officers interview tenants and deal with complaints, whereas surveyors inspect occupied and empty properties.
About 70-80 percent of staff spend time working alone. Some are required to be on call 24 hours or live on the site itself to help manage the property. Others are considered lone workers even though they work in the council building. About two-thirds of the employees are mobile workers.
- Interviewing tenants in their homes and in offices.
- Having to give bad news, for example telling tenants that it is not the council's responsibility to fix a particular problem.
- Being unable to complete particular jobs to the tenant's satisfaction.
- Certain geographical areas or trouble spots are high risk.
- Working late at night.
- Having to leave a job because the tenant is not at home or because the job is different to that reported.
- Psychological abuse caused, for example, by customer complaints of 'improper' conduct by employees.
- Exposure to potentially violent or aggressive members of the public, for example drug users or dealers, large groups of youths, etc.
- Evicting people from their home.
Examples of incidents
- Threats of violence, including use of implements such as a hammer.
- Verbal and physical threats and assaults.
- A large-screen colour television thrown at a member of staff.
- Staff being held hostage.
- Intimidating behaviour from tenants.
- Vehicle break-ins, theft and road rage incidents.
- Attacks by dogs.
- Allegations made by a client of 'improper' acts by a member of staff.
Training and information
Training in dealing with aggression: all staff who work alone receive training that is practically based and involves role-playing.
'Walk away': employees receive full support from their managers if they 'walk away' from a situation in which they feel uncomfortable or threatened. This is considered the most successful form of violence prevention.
Key elements of the course include:
- Employers' and employees' responsibilities for risk assessment, procedures and safe working practices.
- Understanding sources of aggression and violence, eg leaving someone waiting, and how to respond.
- Body language, personal space and methods of communication.
- Awareness of signs of aggression, eg tone of voice.
- How to handle a conversation in order to reduce aggression - for example, listen, maintain a calm tone of voice, but be firm in response.
- How to avoid confrontation.
- Assertiveness versus aggression.
- Know when to terminate the interview or job and leave if necessary.
Potentially Violent Person (PVP) list: the list is sent to all 'at risk' employees quarterly. In accordance with data protection requirements, all new clients added to the list are notified in advance, told of the reasons why and given the opportunity to appeal against the decision,.. The list is reviewed regularly and used exclusively by housing staff. This helps to increase awareness of potentially violent clients and to assess whether two employees are needed for particular jobs.
Accident data: violent incidents are included in quarterly accident reports.
Communication: information about health and safety issues, including violence, is communicated to staff in a number of ways. This helps to increase and update knowledge and to encourage reporting of incidents.
Tenants are informed by post when their behaviour is considered unacceptable: they are told of the consequences of such behaviour if it continues.
Sharing information: this includes promoting a good relationship with the police, health and safety working groups, forums and tenant groups.
Promote prosecution: this helps to convey the message that violence is unacceptable and serves as a deterrent to others.
Post-incident help: counselling is available following a violent incident and managers are encouraged to look for signs of potential cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Work environment and equipment
CCTV in key areas: staff can contact the CCTV control centre to direct the cameras on them if a potentially violent situation is developing. Good lighting is installed and infrared cameras are used.
Mobile phones and radios: staff at risk are issued mobile phones and may also use radios. The new radios have extra features, including contact with the CCTV control centre. They also have a high quality digital audio-recording system which can record situations in which the employee feels vulnerable. There is also a memo-recording facility, which allows staff to record their location before entering a dangerous area. Once the facility is activated, it sends the memo and an alarm signal to the CCTV control centre and opens the channel so that others can hear what is happening. Further improvements to the radio system are being considered.
Contact with the 24-hour call centre: when employees work late at night they are required to contact the call centre to tell staff where they are and to give regular updates on progress.
Doubling up for high-risk areas or jobs: two people attend a job if they know there have been problems in the past. If it is late at night or during a weekend, employees on stand-by have an informal arrangement whereby an employee can call another if they feel uncomfortable. Doubling up can be difficult for some staff, eg rent arrears collectors, because there are fewer staff doing this job.
Less successful measures
Some measures are less effective than others, or have disadvantages:
Teaching physical techniques: rent arrears officers were taught escape and avoidance techniques. However, this gave them a false sense of security and over-confidence which often resulted in aggravation and an escalation of violence.
Doubling up: this can result in work delays because people have to be taken off other jobs. However, the benefits to staff and the organisation are considered to outweigh the costs.
Mobile phones: issuing these has raised the problem of whether to allow staff to use them for personal calls.
CCTV: this cannot provide cover everywhere.
Contacting the call centre: lone workers don't always ring the call centre if they work late at night, although required to do so.
Benefits and costs of measures
The benefits to both the staff and company organisation outweigh the cost of putting the measures in place:
- Staff feel more confident to ask for assistance.
- Staff may walk away rather than argue.
- Staff have the support of their managers; they feel that management cares and are more confident of approval for on-the-spot decisions.
- There is more communication between staff and management.
- More jobs are done because staff do not avoid them because of the risks of violence.
- Tenants are satisfied because they receive a timely and effective service.
- There is less frustration, violence and abuse from tenants.
- Doubling up in high-risk areas has reduced the incidence of physical violence.
- Walking away (with management support) and follow-up letters to clients after an incident has helped to resolve a number of cases.
- Corporate figures indicate a 19 percent reduction in physical assaults over two years.
- As an example of costs, each radio with additional features costs £400-£500.