Managing the risks of customer aggression and violence

Customer aggression and violence isn’t a new workplace hazard, however, the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 has seen an increase in customer aggression and violence for some businesses in the retail sector.  In response to this health and safety regulators such as WorkSafe Victoria have focused on this issue through their ‘Too many workers face this every day.  It’s never ok’ campaign.

The ARA has also launched the #ShopRespectfully campaign, a series of printable posters for retailers to encourage safe and respectful shopping during this stressful time. Access the posters here.

DOWNLOAD IN-STORE POSTERSIn 2017, the SDA launched a major national campaign ‘No One Deserves a Serve’ to stop the abuse and violence towards retail and fast food workers by customers.  This followed research carried out by the SDA, involving 6,000 retail and fast food workers which found that over 85% of them had experienced abuse from customers at work.

The research identified examples of the abuse workers had been exposed to, which included:

  • customers swearing at workers when they didn’t get their own way
  • customers spitting at workers
  • customers throwing objects at workers

WorkSafe Victoria explains that violence and aggression, amongst many examples, can involve, eye rolling and sneering, yelling, calling names, standing over someone. shoving, tripping, grabbing, hitting, punching, threats of violence, threats with weapons, sexual assault.

While customer aggression and violence can happen in any industry, it tends to happen more in certain industries, including retail.

Exposure to workplace violence and aggression can have significant short and long term impacts on a worker’s physical and psychological health.  It can lead to:

  • feelings of isolation, social isolation and family dislocation
  • loss of confidence and withdrawal
  • physical injuries as a result of assault
  • stress, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Illness such as cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, immune deficiency and gastrointestinal disorders e.g. as a result of stress, and
  • suicidal thoughts.

Safe Work Australia’ statistics and research shows that 15% of mental health disorder (workers compensation) claims are caused by exposure to workplace violence.  There is a 55% higher chance among young workers (≤ 24 years old) of being awarded a mental disorder claim due to exposure to workplace violence compared to workers 55 years or older.1

An employer’s obligation to manage the risks of customer aggression and violence

As an employer of workers in the retail industry, you have an obligation to take care of the health and safety of workers and other people, like visitors to your workplace.  You must treat the risk of customer aggression and violence just as you would any other workplace hazard.

In general, you should provide all workers with:

  • a safe physical and online working environment
  • safe work systems and procedures to prevent and respond to violence and aggression, such as procedures for working alone or at night
  • a workplace policy which sets out how the workplace will prevent and respond to violence and aggression, including acceptable standards of behaviour of all workers, customers and clients, and
  • information, training and supervision, such as how to use equipment like duress alarms, what to do during an incident, how to report incidents and how to access support services following an incident.

Of course, there are additional controls that can be put in place to reduce the risk of customer aggression and violence.  An example from the No One Deserves a Serve Campaign, was the issuing and wearing of badges with messages like ‘I’m a mother’, ‘I’m a son’.  The SDA stated that businesses who rolled out the badges to their workers saw a positive impact, and the SDA continue to press other employers to allow workers to wear the badges.

Managing customer aggression and violence training

To assist you in fulfilling your obligation to provide adequate information, instruction and training, the ARA Institute has a short course available to businesses operating in the retail sector.  The Manage disrespectful, aggressive or abusive customers course, is a classroom, or virtual 1 day training + 1 hour practical observation.

The course provides retail workers with a set of skills to manage disrespectful, aggressive or abusive customers. In some jurisdictions the training is funded, or partially funded.  Visit for more information about the course.



The material within this update is provided for general information and educational purposes in summary form on topics which are current when it is first published. The content does not constitute legal advice or recommendations and should not be relied upon as such.

 1Work-related mental disorders profile, 2015



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