Retail Workers and Customer Violence

Topics: Loss Control

Summary: With workplace violence on the rise, especially in retail locations, business owners should create policies and procedures to deter and settle potential situations before they become violent. In this article, learn how to keep your retail store employees safe from violent customers.

Retail Industry and Workplace Violence


COVID-19 and Retail Workplace Violence

Retail workers were prime targets for complaints as businesses reopened with social distancing and mask mandates after the COVID-19 shutdowns. Videos of the threats at stores, such as Costco, Target and Trader Joe’s, were shared on national media outlets and via social media.

CDC Guidance to Protect Retail Workers

As threats to retail workers increased last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released Limiting Workplace Violence Associated with COVID-19 Prevention Policies in Retail and Services Businesses. The guidance provides recommendations for employers in the service and retail industries to protect their workers from the violence that could occur when a customer or co-worker does not comply with store policies to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The guidance recommended retail stores take the following steps to help limit the potential for customer or co-worker violent incidents:
  • Educate workers to recognize threatening situations, how to deescalate potentially tense incidents with nonviolent resolutions and other workplace violence training responses
  • Be mindful of threatening situations and support workers and customers if matters do escalate
  • Do not force an upset or potentially violent person to wear a mask or comply with policies; instead, focus on avoiding a violent outburst, such as offering to shop on their behalf.
  • Install security systems such as panic buttons, cameras or alarms and train employees how to use them
  • Establish a safe area for employees to go to if they feel they are in danger, such as a room that locks from the inside, has a second exit route and phone and silent alarm availability

As the pandemic continues and health mandates loosen, employers need to continue to guard against workplace violence by creating anti-violence plans and training to limit violent incidents.

Customer Violence in the Workplace

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines workplace violence as “violent acts, including physical assaults and threats of assaults directed towards persons at work or on duty.” Jobs with a higher stress level can also increase the risk of workplace violence. Examples of these types of jobs include delivery drivers, healthcare professionals, public service workers, retail workers, law enforcement and those who work alone or in small groups. Most incidents of workplace violence are verbal abuse or physical assault. However, larger violent events such as the mass shooting at King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colorado, highlight the dangers that retail workers can face.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, retail workers were at a higher risk for workplace violence due to high-traffic locations, open and public spaces, late-night operations and higher employer turnover. In the latest data (from 2018), the 2019 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Report found 291 total fatal injuries in the retail industry, with 128 of them due to violent workplace acts. According to the 2020 U.S. Retail Violent Fatalities Report from D&D Daily, there were 485 fatal retail incidents, a sharp increase compared to the year before.

Retail Workplace Violence Prevention

Organizations must have clear workplace violence policies and procedures stating that violence in the workplace will not be tolerated, and there will be severe consequences for those who commit it.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends general safety tips for retail workers such as:
  • Keeping windows from being covered by signage or displays
  • Maintaining proper lighting both inside and outside the store
  • Using physical barriers to protect workers
  • Testing safety alarms and cameras often • Informing all staff members about the store’s security and safety plans, including which doors should stay locked and which are emergency exits
  • Ensuring sufficient staffing levels for a safe working environment

Matt Zender, Senior Vice President, Workers’ Compensation Strategy at AmTrust, explains the importance of safe work environments, including entrances and exits if there is a workplace violence event, “Traditionally, underwriters think about the risk in terms of employee concentrations and ingress and egress of a location in the event of an emergency. This doesn’t just relate to workplace violence; it’s important for all catastrophic events, and it’s something that employers must consider when taking steps to minimize risks in the workplace.”

Warning Signs for Violent Incidents in Retail Stores

A violent act at a retail location cannot be predicted based on any single element, but when a combination of work, societal and behavioral factors comes together, risks can increase. A workplace violence training program should define workplace violence, the warning signs, prevention strategies and ways to respond to threatening or potentially violent incidents.
  • Warning Signs: Employees should learn verbal and non-verbal cues that could be warning signs for potential violence. The more cues shown, the greater the risk for workplace violence. Verbal cues include speaking loudly or swearing. Non-verbal cues include clenched fists, fixed stares and pacing.
  • Responses: Staff should learn how to respond appropriately to potentially violent situations, including maintaining non-threatening eye contact, avoiding threatening gestures, and reacting if the situation escalates to an active shooter incident.

Workplace Violence Training Program

There will always be a risk for workplace violence in retail locations, but if employers and employees take basic safety precautions and follow training procedures, the impact on the workforce can be minimalized.
  • Hazard Assessment: Assess the worksite's physical security and employee risks, including the store layout and parking lots.
  • Safety Controls: Based on the hazard assessment, make improvements to safety measures such as better lighting, security cameras, mirrors and panic buttons.
  • Workplace Violence Policy: It is critical to develop a comprehensive workplace violence policy that is communicated with all associates via onboarding and continual training.

According to Jeff Corder, Vice President of Loss Control at AmTrust, “One of the best protections retail store employers can offer their workers is to establish a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence, which should cover all workers, customers, vendors, contractors, and anyone else who may come in contact with company personnel.”

AmTrust Protects Your Retail Workers

AmTrust’s Loss Control Department offers a variety of workplace safety resources designed to help your organization take a proactive approach in reducing incidents on the job. AmTrust is a leading workers’ compensation carrier for small to mid-sized businesses across the country. Contact us to learn how we can create a small business insurance package, including workers’ comp insurance, for your organization.

This material is for informational purposes only and is not legal or business advice. Neither AmTrust Financial Services, Inc. nor any of its subsidiaries or affiliates represents or warrants that the information contained herein is appropriate or suitable for any specific business or legal purpose. Readers seeking resolution of specific questions should consult their business and/or legal advisors. Coverages may vary by location. Contact your local RSM for more information.

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