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How Retailers Must Adapt to Improve Staff Safety

Latest figures from the British Retail Crime Survey show that the rate of reported physical abuse towards staff working within retail has doubled over the past year, with 13 workers suffering an injury every day due to incidents of violence.

As the UK’s largest private sector, retail employs an estimated 4.9 million people – around 1 in 10 of the nation’s workforce. The industry is currently undergoing a period of unprecedented structural change due to cost pressures, which have seen an emerging trend for larger stores giving way to smaller ones, with longer opening hours. Although this offers customers more convenience, staying open later with less staff on the shop floor has inevitably lead to increased risk for employees.

The way we shop has also evolved with more and more of us opting to buy online. This has resulted in the growth of home delivery services with many drivers often working alone which can make them vulnerable.

With shoplifting and the number of store burglaries rising, members of the British Retail Consortium (BRC) have reported that they are seeing more ‘career criminals’ turning to violence when challenged.

It’s clear that retailers must adapt to ensure staff are protected. Speaking about the growing issue, Chief Executive of the BRC, Helen Dickinson commented: “In particular, the figures on violence present a deeply concerning picture. Attacks on retail workers are intolerable, and our members are completely clear that keeping their staff safe and providing an environment in which they can work free of fear from threats and violence, is their first priority.

“Retailers are doing everything possible to ensure that staff members and customers are safe and protected. But they are now spending record amounts on crime prevention, which is a drag on the economic viability of shops and not infinitely sustainable.”

The cost of failing to protect employees however, can be extremely damaging to retailers on a number of levels. Not only is there the threat of legal action which could result in a prosecution, but there is also the negative impact on staff morale and the company’s wider reputation leading to possible interruption and loss of business.

Defining potential risks to retail staff

Despite retail being so diverse, the main threat to staff is one that’s widespread across the sector.

Employees often find themselves on the receiving end of abuse from disgruntled customers when dealing with complaints which can escalate into physical violence. Common flashpoints include shoplifting and refusal to sell age-restricted goods such as alcohol. High value goods can be a target for career thieves, who are becoming increasingly violent.

Staff are also at greater risk when dealing with cash in transit, receiving deliveries and locking up or opening premises. With the extension in opening hours, these tasks are regularly carried out at times when there is no-one else around, sometimes by lone workers who may struggle to get help if something goes wrong.

How can retailers protect their workforce?

  • Assess the risks – identify what could cause harm to employees on a task by task basis, from this policies can be created to manage these risks and minimise the potential for accident or injury.
  • Implement safety policies and procedures – employers should be clear on their stance towards safety and provide a series of set instructions on what to do in emergency scenarios.
  • Staff awareness and training – employees themselves need to be well versed on incident response, how to get help, personal safety, de-escalation and conflict resolution techniques, lockdown protocols and evacuation. Employees gain confidence through practicing these procedures, so regular drills are recommended.
  • Increase store security – appropriate measures should be taken depending on the level of risk, these could include employing security staff, physical barriers, shutters, cameras, motion lights, burglar alarms, panic buttons, access control, safe havens for staff to retreat to and improved lines of sight so there are no hidden areas where incidents can go unnoticed.
  • Care with cash – tills should be placed securely out of reach from customers. Cash should be moved regularly to avoid large amounts building up.
  • Consider the impact of lone working – conditions must be set out in a lone worker policy covering when staff should and shouldn’t be allowed to work alone, possible hotspot times when an incident may be more likely to occur and certain higher-risk tasks that require employees to double up e.g. moving cash or locking up.
  • Personal alarms – issuing staff with monitored personal safety devices provides a discreet means for employees to get help, giving them peace of mind. Some of these also enable recording which can be used as evidence in court.


Safety is a collaboration between employers and their staff. For these measures to be effective there must be communication with employees to ensure policies are fully understood. As well as the obvious benefits, by taking employee welfare seriously employers should see an overall improvement in morale, enhancing productivity and reducing absenteeism.

Now is the time for the retail industry as a whole to take positive steps to improve safety for its employees, as Helen Dickinson says, “A new approach is required. Working with our key partners, we at the BRC are seeking to deliver an agreed strategy to halt violence and abuse in its tracks.”

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