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Preface to the ILO draft code on preventing violence in the workplace

Preface to the ILO draft code on preventing violence in the workplace

Violence and stress at work currently affect millions of workers in services sectors around the world, and have become a threat to quality of service, productivity and decent work in a variety of industries. The harmful impact of workplace violence and stress is felt in both industrialized and developing countries; across a far-reaching range of occupations and work settings; and both in the public and private sectors. The huge costs of these phenomena for the individual, the workplace and the community are becoming increasingly apparent through working days lost, increased security measures, health care, long-term rehabilitation and indirect social costs. Violence and stress can impair the quality of services, disrupt efficient and effective workplaces, blight interpersonal relationships and trust among colleagues, and make the workplace bleak, unwelcoming and sometimes dangerous.

In services sectors, the problem of violence and stress is wider than in primary or secondary industries, because of the direct contact between workers and their customers/clients or the general public. 1 Most work environments are exposed to such problems, but some sectors (for example, services sectors such as education, health, hotels, entertainment and transport) and occupational groups (including taxi drivers, emergency services workers, nurses and teachers) are particularly exposed to violence and stress. This code of practice is addressed specifically at services sectors, but many of the suggestions contained in it could also be applied, with appropriate modifications, to manufacturing and other industries.

Violence includes both physical and non-physical or psychological violence, in the form of verbal abuse, physical assault up to and including homicide, bullying, mobbing, harassment and mental stress. Workplace violence can be internal (within the enterprise, among managers, supervisors and workers); but there is also external violence (between workers and intruders, as well as between staff, clients, patients, students, suppliers, and the general public).

Stress is not necessarily a negative phenomenon. Some stress is considered to be normal and necessary to perform work in a satisfactory manner. However, if stress is intense, continuous or repeated, and if the person is unable to cope or if support is lacking, such stress has adverse effects, sometimes leading to physical illness and psychological disorders. Occupational stress can be characterized as the harmful physical and emotional responses occurring when the job requirements, work environment or work organization do not match the worker’s capabilities, resources or needs. The main sources of workplace stress are the demands of the job, lack of control over one’s situation, change, conflicting roles, interpersonal relationships, lack of support at work, and the balance between work and life.

When the term "stress" is used in this code, it usually refers to negative, harmful forms of stress. Violence and stress can reinforce one another and are often interrelated, but there is no automatic connection between the two phenomena (although harassment is a form of stress and of violence). In tackling stress and violence, comprehensive approaches through which the health, safety and well-being of workers become an integral part of a process of continuous improvement of services are increasingly successful. The full range of causes that generate stress and violence requires analysis, and various intervention strategies need to be adopted to address them. It should also be recognized that violence and stress at work are not limited to a fixed workplace – some services workers (transport and postal delivery workers, for example) have a mobile workplace. There is also a risk of violence or stress that originates at home or during commuting that can severely affect the workplace; in turn, violence or stress at work can spill over during commuting and into the home, the family and the community.

Stress and violence are increasingly noted at the sectoral level. In the education sector (right here in South Africa!!), dramatic incidents of firearms-related violence have attracted considerable public attention, and the increase in more widespread, less spectacular problems of violence and stress is of major concern. Since health and safety in schools – for students, for teaching staff and for the learning environment itself – is of particular concern to employers, workers and stakeholders in that sector, violence and stress must be included in analysis and preventive action. In the health sector, violence is so common among those working directly with people in distress that it may be considered an inevitable part of the job; in fact, about a quarter of work accidents involving violence occur in health services.

In most forms of transport (railways, urban transport, planes, taxis), aggression against employees and passengers has worsened considerably in recent years. Hotels and restaurants are strongly affected by occupational violence, since risk factors include late night and early morning shifts, working alone and in premises where alcohol is served and money exchanged in public. Workers in the postal, banking and commerce sectors have also been identified as being at heightened risk of violence and stress.

Brief analyses of violence and stress in selected services sectors or subsectors are provided in Appendix K. Conclusions of ILO sectoral meetings in recent years 2 have confirmed the need to examine violence and stress in the context of sectoral occupational safety and health.

On the basis of these considerations, the Governing Body of the ILO agreed at its 279th Session in November 2000 that a meeting of experts should be held in 2003 to develop a code of practice on violence and stress in services sectors. At the 284th Session of the Governing Body, in June 2002, it was agreed that the meeting of experts should be held from 8 to 15 October 2003, and that the meeting would have the following composition: 12 experts nominated by governments, 12 experts nominated after consultations with the Employers’ group of the Governing Body and 12 experts nominated after consultations with the Workers’ group of the Governing Body.

The 12 government experts would be nominated by the governments of the following countries: Algeria, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, Mauritius, Peru, Philippines, South Africa, United Kingdom and United States. The governments of the following countries were placed on the reserve list: Austria, Brazil, Burundi, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, France, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland and Zimbabwe. It was also decided that the purpose of the meeting should be: to consider and review a draft and to adopt a Code of practice on violence and stress at work in services sectors: A threat to productivity and decent work.



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Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

Managing Director


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