Use Of Force And Workplace Violence: A Growing Risk

    pic2By Dr Tony Zalewski.

    Increasing crime rates for violence, including domestic violence, illicit drug use such as ice and a more challenging public to authority of public safety personnel, has further impacted upon the ability of operational security staff to meet workplace objectives.

    Inevitably, some interactions between members of the public with security staff have the potential to escalate to a physical level, with some interactions requiring the use of force. Typically, force is a potential option to remove a patron from licensed premises, to stop an unauthorised entry into a building or to complete the arrest of a resisting shoplifter outside a retail store.

    This article will discuss issues relating to the use of force in the workplace, including matters relevant to the increased risk of workplace violence.

    The Statistics

    Common forms of assault throughout Australia remain prominent within reported crime statistics. Victoria’s 2014 assault data disclosed an increase of 1.7 percent for reported assaults to 46,912. For the same period, the rates for New South Wales remained constant at around 34,000 non-domestic assaults and in Queensland around 18,100 annually. Reported crime statistics do not disclose incidents involving security staff, albeit the New South Wales crime statistics did recently report an 8.1 percent increase in assaults on police.

    A growing area of concern is domestic violence and its potential impact within the workplace. Throughout Australia, one woman is killed every week and one hospitalised every three hours due to a domestic incident. Victorian police attended 65,393 domestic incidents in 2013–14, twice as many as in 2009–10, and charges were laid in approximately 30,000 of those attendances. Most Australian police forces report up to 50 percent of all operational policing time is now spent handling domestic incidents.

    Workplace disputes are another area of concern, whether between workers or others in or around the workplace. Safe Work Australia and other state or territory agencies have published guidance materials to assist safety and security leaders develop appropriate proactive and reactive measures for their workplaces.

    Security staff operate in diverse environments, including hospitality and gaming premises, commercial and public buildings, air and maritime ports, high-risk defence and other government sites and major retail operations to name a few. It is therefore foreseeable there will be circumstances requiring physical intervention by security staff, whether intervening to keep the peace or to effect a lawful purpose such as arresting a shoplifter or removing an aggressive patron. It must be remembered that any physical intervention is a high-risk activity, hence the importance of an appropriate system.

    Industry Guidance

    There is a plethora of information freely available on the Internet to assist employers and security leaders develop an appropriate system to cope with aggression and violence in the workplace. For example, the Australian Capital Territory (2010), New South Wales (2002), Victoria (2003 and 2014) and Western Australia (2010) have published materials addressing the risk of workplace violence. Each recommends a risk assessment as the foundation for developing any strategy. For security staff this is reinforced by AS/NZS2241:2011 Guard and Patrol Security Services (2.6.1) where a risk assessment should be conducted prior to the commencement of any work. This is particularly important to minimise risks associated with workplace violence.

    Use of Force and Tactical Options Model

    As use of force is a high-risk activity, it is important that all staff are regularly appraised to ensure their competency level is maintained. It is not acceptable to rely on pre-licensing training of security staff as a measure for competency. Employers must ensure each employee receives appropriate training against the perceived level of risk associated with force in an operational perspective at their workplace. There should also be operating procedures to guide staff in both understanding the organisations and relevant legal requirements.

    Use of force typically involves three considerations:

    1. lawful justification to apply force
    2. reasonableness in that force was a necessary option
    3. the amount of force was proportionate to the danger in the circumstances

    Pre-licensing training and various materials such as those provided by industry associations can further assist to elaborate upon these points. However, if each of the three considerations cannot be clearly evidenced, this high-risk activity may impact adversely upon the individuals, the organisation and ultimately the industry. This highlights the importance of employers ensuring current competency of their employees in this high-risk area of work and a complete understanding of their tactical options when confronted with a potential use-of-force incident.

    Many organisations use a tactical options model in the development of their staff. Use of such a model can assist staff to understand that, as an incident continues, ongoing assessment in the use of tactical options must also occur. There are variations on tactical options models; however, it is important that any model is relatively simple to understand and not complicated with unnecessary content or jargon. Below is an example of a basic tactical options model. Note that assessment commences in the centre of the model and works out and around to determine the most appropriate tactical option at any given time.



    It is important that employers, in the context of the relevant workplace, ensure staff are provided with procedures that explain each of the options for that particular workplace. A generic tactical options document is inappropriate and will lead to mere confusion in a high-risk incident. Pre-planning is essential, hence the importance of a risk assessment with risk controls developed prior to any work activity. This approach in itself will minimise risk.

    Procedures that enhance operational security activity involve step-by-step instructions of how to perform routine for common tasks. For example, a procedure for approaching should include the following before any instructions about communication or the use of force:

    1. Before approaching the person, conduct a quick safety risk assessment, that is, dual purpose weapons, associates of the person in the immediate vicinity, furniture or others that might create a danger and the like.
    2. Notify another staff member (or summon support if working as part of a team).
    3. Approach the person, adopting a position of safety and advantage.

    This method further minimises risk whilst also enhancing safety for everyone present.

    Common Problems

    Common problems associated with the use of force by security staff involve unlawful striking or the overuse of physical controlling measures to achieve an outcome. For example, unlawful striking often involves blows to the head of another. This is hard to justify in most circumstances. A poor controlling measure might involve applying a transport wrist lock as a punishment rather than an escort hold. In these circumstances the hold could lead to permanent injury and litigation. Laying with one’s bodyweight on another can cause serious injury, as has been evidenced across Australia in a number of positional asphyxia cases.

    Some areas of security work also have particular issues to address, such as ensuring staff understand limitations on external activity and their authorised areas of work. This is commonly evidenced in crowd control at licensed premises where discretion on where external staff can operate needs to be removed. It is never justifiable to follow a removed patron down the footpath away from the venue or across the street to resolve a conflict. Similarly, it is never justifiable to chase a fleeing shoplifter through a busy shopping centre to effect an arrest.


    Use of force is a high-risk but inevitable requirement within security operations. Employers must ensure a suitable system of work has been developed that takes into account, in the context of the relevant workplace, risks associated with the use of force.

    Statistics suggest the risk of physical interventions is a foreseeable option across all industry sectors. As security staff are the front-line defenders for security and safety at any workplace, their competence must be maintained through a formal system of assessment, guidance and supervision. Such competency assessment and guidance should also be recorded within staff files to ensure there is evidence of an employer’s attention to this high-risk security activity.

    For over 20 years Dr Tony Zalewski has provided expert security reports to courts in all Australian jurisdictions. He has four degrees, including a law degree, from Australian universities and has worked on over 500 cases, including some of Australia’s leading security-related civil actions. He also provides advice about security across industry sectors and is a security adviser to governments locally and abroad.