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A clear and present danger – the need to make retail environments safer

May 23, 2024

These are tough trading times for the UK high street.  In addition to retailers experiencing a drastic reduction in footfall, in recent months we have witnessed a serious increase in violence against staff. To stem the tide retailers must take action to safeguard workers, create a pleasant and inviting environment for customers, and protect their reputations.

The UK high street is currently experiencing long-term decline, as more people shop online in search of better deals, benefitting from convenience factors, such as home delivery and click and collect. Once popular household names such as Debenhams, House of Fraser, Select, HMV, Evans Cycles, Toys ‘R’ Us and Maplin have joined thousands of other smaller retailers in either disappearing completely or being taken over after going into administration.

Retailers are continually being forced to reassess their business models, to automate and to maximise their productivity, which includes minimising staff numbers to what is affordable and sustainable. This itself creates demands and risks that were not present even 5 years ago.

There appears to be very little light at the end of the tunnel and, according to the Centre for Retail Research, job losses for 2021 alone are expected to reach 200,000 with over 1,700 store closures. In addition, a massive rise in experiential retailing has affected most retailers, as customers are mainly seeking out experience led shopping. It means that shoppers who still choose to visit stores are increasingly looking for an end-to-end connected experience – they want a place where the physical products on display are linked to the online world, and where they receive personalised advice and assistance.

While some retailers look towards experiential retailing as the potential saviour of the high street, they also need to address the risks associated with less staff, combined with another key concern – the growing threat of violence towards staff.

Violence in the retail space

Violence in the workplace is far more common than most people realise, which can include everything from verbal abuse, (mandatory mask wearing has been a catalyst for this), pushing and punching, to spitting, sexual assault and even fatalities.

It is one of the most pressing issues retailers face – and it’s increasing year on year. Furthermore, poor or non-existent confrontation management training means that some colleagues can inadvertently exacerbate a problem and inflame potentially volatile situations. This perfect storm means that violence is becoming more commonplace.

Not only does this trend mean that retail staff are under increasing danger while carrying out their duties, but the negative publicity surrounding such incidents can also deter law abiding customers from visiting certain shops – something that can then cause irrevocable damage to a retailer’s brand reputation.

Duty of care and health and safety legislation

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines work related violence as ‘any incident in which an employee is abused, threatened or assaulted by a member of the public in circumstances arising out of the course of his/her employment’.

Employers must ensure the health and safety of employees while they are at work, along with any third parties affected by their business, including members of the public. Various pieces of legislation exist to ensure that this is the case including the Management of Health & Safety At Work Regulations 1999, the Workplace (Health, Safety & Welfare) Regulations 1992 and the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. Although the latter states that employers have a legal duty to ensure, so far as it is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees, the measures implemented can often fall short of what is required, and the repercussions of violence can have devastating consequences on the physical and psychological health of those affected.

There is no room for error when it comes to employee safety and, as part of a defined corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy and occupational health and safety management system (OHSMS), measures should be put in place to tackle the risk of violence. A thorough risk assessment should be undertaken to identify any hazards, consider who might be harmed and how to evaluate any danger and decide on the necessary preventative measures. Once completed and preventative measures actioned, the findings should be documented, and the risk assessment process reviewed and updated at regular intervals.

This process and a proactive approach can make a real difference. For example, bookmakers have become a fixture of the UK high street, but they are amongst the most likely environments for staff to be assaulted in. To make betting shops safer for staff and customers, The Association of British Bookmakers’ Safe Bet Alliance initiative outlines agreed voluntary standards of workplace security for the betting industry including colleague security training and how to manage personal safety.

Implementing technology for employee protection

Those working in the retail sector perform a variety of roles and as well as those on the shop floor there are also warehouse personnel, cashiers, customer services staff, office workers, logistical personnel and, in larger organisations, engineering and maintenance teams – all of whom need to be protected whilst going about their activities. In some situations, these individuals are classed as lone workers and should be provided with the requisite technology to stay safe.

Personal safety device technology has developed significantly over the last decade. It acts as a means to summon aid in the event of an emergency, to collect important information that can be used as evidence and confirm the safety of an individual by allowing them to check in or out. As a result, there is now an array of devices on the market, ranging from panic buttons and alarms with audio functionality to body worn cameras and smartphone applications that can connect employees quickly to an emergency response system. In cases where discretion is required to avoid heightening tensions, manufacturers have developed solutions that can be hidden from obvious sight, for example, in the form of an ID Badge holder, so an aggressor is unaware that an individual is wearing a personal safety device.

Body worn cameras are increasingly being deployed.  They act as a powerful deterrent and their presence can diffuse situations and change people’s behaviours.  They also generate evidence, both video and audio. Typically the body worn cameras are triggered to record by the user, rather than recording constantly.  When triggered, cameras now have the capability to generate a live video and audio stream for remote incident monitoring and response purposes.

Every retail environment is unique and different roles come with different risks. This adds to the importance of carrying out a full and detailed risk assessment, which can identify the best type of personal safety device(s) to deploy. It is also important to work with a technology provider that is able to integrate its personal safety equipment into a broader security infrastructure. For example, aligning personal safety equipment with CCTV, access control and even manned guarding can create a solution where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. By using this strategy, threats and dangers can be identified well in advance and any information used to prevent a serious incident from occurring.

This type of holistic strategy also enables full visibility and avoids the unnecessary expense, disruption and logistical issues that can be caused by duplicating technology and other resources. Leading manufacturers are also able to offer relevant training, which is vital in terms of being able to use any equipment correctly. However, even with the most sophisticated preventive measures in place, incidents can still occur. Retailers should therefore have a detailed strategy in place that teaches staff how to deal with aggressive individuals and diffuse volatile situations through conflict avoidance, management and de-escalation techniques, and have effective incident follow up procedures to support any staff affected

Remote monitoring and what to look for in an ARC

Personal safety devices and body worn cameras are used to best effect when connected to an Alarm Receiving Centre (ARC), which receives and manages activations, audio calls and live video streams, and can request emergency services. With certain devices, if an individual feels that they are entering into a situation that poses a potential risk, they can even send a pre-activation message to inform the ARC. If a dangerous situation then arises, the device can be activated to send an alert for assistance. With an audio based system, activating a device triggers a voice call to the ARC, where trained operators monitor the audio channel in real time, enabling them to assess the situation and alert the police if and when necessary.  Body worn cameras can trigger live video and audio streams into the ARC accelerating the situation verification process conducted by the operator.

These solutions could be invaluable for a lone shop worker when confronted with a potential risk situation, such as customers intoxicated on drink or drugs late at night who might be a cause for concern, but not a definitive threat.  In this situation, the ARC can monitor the audio and video to help verify the threat and take action if necessary.

When choosing an ARC it is important to select one that has the requisite industry accreditations. The long established BS 5979 and the more recently introduced BS EN 50518/BS 8591 standards are recognised and accepted by the police service and the security auditing bodies. They define the parameters that must be adhered to by ARCs that receive signals from fire and security systems.

There is also BS 8418, which covers the installation and remote monitoring of detector activated surveillance technology and sets out to raise the standard of installation and operation of integrated systems. This not only concerns design, but also the performance of personal safety equipment, motion detectors, cameras, alarm handling devices, and how the overall system is maintained.

Furthermore, when collecting, storing and using personal information, compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is imperative. A reputable ARC – preferably with ISO 27001 and ISO 22301 certifications – will be able to guarantee that only authorised, competent and security screened personnel are provided with access to data for retention and/or processing purposes and can demonstrate robust policies around information security management, business continuity and legislative compliance.

It may seem obvious that these accreditations are adhered to, however, we all hear far too often about data breaches, cyber attacks and malicious hacking events that happen every day somewhere in the country. The responsibility for safety, security and integrity starts with our decisions on technology and providers.

URNs and the need to eliminate false alarms

The National Police Chiefs’ Council’s (NPCC) Police Requirements & Response to Security Systems policy sets conditions on the use of an allocated unique reference number (URN) when requesting attendance at an incident. Underpinning this service is the ARC accreditation to BS 5979 Category II, or BS EN 50518 and BS 8591. For lone worker solutions with personal safety devices, accreditation to BS 8484 is required to be able to escalate to police services via a lone worker URN.  The corresponding standard for body worn cameras is BS 8593.

False alarms generated from traditional security systems can often result in the police response being removed from those sites. The time and effort required to gain reinstatement takes up resources and can leave sites exposed for significant periods of time.

The Metropolitan Police claims that responding to a false alarm costs £150 but BS 8484 has helped to drastically reduce the number of incidents where police are called out unnecessarily. In 2018 the BSIA claimed that BS 8484 accredited systems only pass between 0.1-0.2 per cent of all personal safety and lone worker generated alarms to the police via URNs. ARCs that take the issue seriously have developed processes and procedures that filter out false alarms to ensure that only genuine emergencies are escalated.