How agents can stay safe in their workplace: John Boulding

Scared woman at home looking through the shutters

In the wake of a recent UK travel agent being killed in a domestic violence-related attack in her workplace, some agencies have begun evaluating the safety of their workplaces for agents.

One particular big name, travel veteran and former Insight Vacations CEO, John Boulding, penned a piece on agent safety at work. He’s shared this exclusively with Travel Weekly, and poses some interesting ideas on the topic.

Check out his thoughts below, and read his blog here.

“Workplace safety and travel agents”

The UK travel industry reacted with shock and dismay this weekend, when young travel agent and mother, Cassie Hayes, died from shock and loss of blood after her throat was cut, allegedly by a jealous ex-partner, in front of horrified staff and customers at the TUI shop in Southport.

Could something similar happen again? Sadly, probably yes. An intruder attack can occur anywhere in the world whenever people are in a vulnerable situation, such as sitting at a desk or counter in an open retail environment.

Other recent examples include Jo Cox, the UK Member of Parliament, murdered while attending her constituency surgery; and the frequency of the dreadful school shootings in America and elsewhere.

We can wring our hands and blame a broken society, but the truth is there are always those unhinged few who, twisted by a real or imagined slight, will take any unguarded opportunity to release their distorted revenge in a savage act of violence.

So what can employers do about it, and just how widespread is the issue? In pubs and clubs, one can anticipate that many incidents will be drink or drug related, with or without weapons, so premises at risk tend to beef up security accordingly as a matter of course.

In general retail environments, the dangers are perhaps harder to predict. They come mainly through robbery, violence from shop-lifters or drug users, and racist, sexist or homophobic physical or verbal abuse from shoppers. Of course there is internal workplace violence too – let’s not forget this can be just as dangerous.

One would like to think that travel agencies carry a tad less risk than general retail outlets in the sense that they are retailing holidays not handbags.

We read all too often about raids on cash in foreign exchange units of course, but the Cassie Hayes murder regrettably counters any sense of security we might have otherwise have felt.

Typically, governments, industry bodies and individual firms do their best to counter the dangers. But are they doing enough? In the UK, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) dictates that every employer has a legal duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of its employees under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

The rules are wide-ranging and include most types of incidents in which person might be abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work.

Their definitions include general physical violence – kicking, spitting, hitting or pushing; as well as more extreme violence with knives or other weapons. And verbal abuse too, including shouting, swearing or insults, racial or sexual abuse; threats and intimidation.

It is important for employers to note that HSE places as much emphasis on workplace abuse as they do on other forms of danger, such as heavy lifting, slips, trips, fixings, stairs and so on.

You’d imagine every employer would be aware of their responsibilities; but in the light of recent events it seems likely that some may need to rethink their priorities.

HSE strongly urges employers to consult with their staff, since it is front-liners who are very often in the best position to foresee threats and dangers. The organisation publishes good summary guidelines that are definitely worth a read.

One of the fundamentals in good preparedness is well rehearsed training for incidents, so everyone knows the drill and can act immediately during an event. Post trauma is a vital time too.

TUI has rightly offered counselling to its staff and customers in Southport, in recognition of the basic responsibility of companies to support and assist staff in individual and team recovery.

HSE has also published a specific example of a safety assessment template in a travel agency. It’s worth a read, but perhaps now needs a tweak to bring additional focus to provisions for acts of aggression, such as that experienced in Southport.

Travel agency owners would do well to add this to their own plans; as did education authorities around the world. Schools also found out about grudge-related violence the hard way, but now have well-rehearsed plans for minimising, responding and containing random incidents.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the United States, identifies that both males and females are affected. It noted in a study some years back that men were the victims in 80 per cent of overall workplace homicides.

The retail sector contributed 36 per cent of the overall total men killed in the workplace. For women in retail,  the total death toll was lower but the percentage was higher, with a full 46% of female workplace deaths taking place in a retail environment.

I’m sure that the big travel retailers will have already pulled out their health and safety manuals for a thorough cross check on procedures. Individual agents must do so too.

Agency personnel need training to be able to recognise and reduce threats where possible so, should the worst happen, they have a range of choices available to reduce their chances of being injured and increase their chances of survival.

Violent intruder preparedness consultation and training will help reduce the impact of actual violence will ensure a faster and healthier recovery if the worst should happen.

Training needs to teach staff how to:

  • Identify risk factors for workplace violence.
  • Recognise behavioral warning signs in individuals.
  • Create a customised workplace violence prevention and response program.
  • Take immediate action to reduce injuries and to reduce the risk of fatalities.
  • Alert staff and others and know how to give them second-by-second instructions that may save their lives.
  • Know how local law enforcement will respond and how to assist them.

Maybe we can’t entirely prevent intruder violence in the workplace but we can perhaps do more to minimise it. We must learn from experience and owe it to staff and customers to make their lives as safe as possible; and it will make for a better business too.

Credits: Health and Safety Executive (HSE), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), National VIPS training, Header image – Liverpool Echo.

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