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Preventing retail violence

January 1, 2011

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Although fatalities in retail trade are low overall, many retail workers are at an elevated risk of workplace violence. Bureau of Justice Statistics data indicates the retail industry experiences the third-highest workplace violence victimization rate, after law enforcement and mental health professionals.

Some elements make certain retail stores greater targets. Late-night retailers such as liquor stores, convenience stores and gas stations often are at the highest risk, according to OSHA, because many have poorly lit parking lots and frequently are run by a lone worker.

Employers can implement certain logistical changes to make their retail outlets less susceptible to robbery and other acts of violence. OSHA’s recently updated guidance on preventing workplace violence in late-night retail establishments includes modifications to the physical environment, such as avoiding signage and shelving that blocks a worker’s view of the windows, installing a drop safe to limit the amount of money on hand, and using bullet-proof enclosures to protect workers from potential assailants.

Yet workers also need to be well-trained in how to behave in the event of a robbery or other encounter with a violent customer. At some stores “there have been cutbacks in the security coverage, and that’s a bit of a concern to the [union] members,” said Stephen Mooser, health and safety director of the New York-based Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. “It’s not uncommon for an employee at an urban drug store to encounter violent situations a couple times a year.”

The main thing workers need to understand is to not resist in a robbery situation. “The advice is to be as cooperative, calm and nonthreatening as possible,” Mooser said. He added that workers should be instructed to not confront shoplifters. “Unfortunately, some of those smaller retailers do … expect their employees to actively confront a shoplifter.”

However, workplace violence can erupt not only at the hands of would-be robbers and shoplifters, but also from disgruntled customers. In those cases, Mooser believes it is critical that employees know when to turn the situation over to a manager. “Be clear about the role of the manager,” he said. “When a situation is developing with a customer, where they are getting more and more irate, [workers should] turn that over to a manager and not continue to get involved.”

Workers should not feel like they are failing to do their job or letting the manager down by doing this. “I would say that would be the critical point [in prevention] and hopefully stores have that policy,” Mooser said. “Managers are the ones that are trained to do that higher level of customer relations, and hopefully employees don’t make the mistake of getting personally involved in the situation. That’s the key part of training, as difficult as it is.”

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