It seems inconceivable to most of us that anyone would wantonly attack, injure or in any other way assault a nurse, fire officer or police officer. Yet every day our emergency services and front-line NHS staff face increasing levels of violence, physical harm, and aggression. In September, in a bid to try and stem this increase in the levels of emergency worker assaults, the government increased the custodial sentence for attacking an emergency worker from 6 months to a year in prison. Courts were also advised to consider ‘the strongest penalties for other offences against emergency workers’, according to the government’s website.
The updated law covers attacks against the police, custody and prison officers, fire service personnel, search and rescue and paramedics. Judges also have to consider much tougher sentences for other offences such as GBH and sexual assault against emergency workers, known as a ‘Statutory Aggravating Factor’. This means that judges must view an assault against an emergency service worker as an aggravating factor in the crime and increase the level of punishment accordingly.
Bodies such as the Royal College of Nursing have welcomed the developments but are pushing for other front-line NHS staff to be included alongside paramedics and first responders. They regard it as a step in the right direction, but there is still further to go to ensure all NHS staff are given the same level of protection.
Why is this necessary?
Attacks on emergency service workers have risen dramatically over the last few years. The government’s own statistics reveal that there were nearly 27,000 reported attacks on police officers in 2017/18 (72 attacks every day), and over 56,000 attacks on NHS staff during 2016/17. Prison officers have seen a 25% increase in the number of physical attacks in just one year, while firefighters have reported an 18% increase in attacks over two years.
While there is already a specific offence of assaulting a police officer, this is the first time that the law has been extended to encompass other emergency service providers and workers.
Why are attacks on emergency workers regarded as more serious?
While physical and sexual assault on anyone is cause for concern and a criminal act, attacks directed towards emergency staff who are simply carrying out their duty and trying to help people is regarded as an attack on society, not just individuals. It is an attack on the principles of a democracy and has been widely used by the media to demonstrate how ‘feral’ some parts of the UK have become. A breakdown of law and order through attacks on the police is regarded as an attack on the state, which is why the crime of assaulting a police officer has always been on the statute books. Now, others are coming under attack and the state regards this as unacceptable.
What about other workers?
It is every employer’s duty to ensure that their staff work in a safe and secure environment. Physically assaulting an employee should be given the same level of gravitas regardless of their position. For another employee to physically attack a fellow worker is without exception, grounds for instant dismissal and possibly criminal prosecution. For a member of the public to attack a worker should also carry the same degree of severity when it comes to the consequences.
While the perpetrator of any physical assault is primarily to blame, employers need to be careful too. They may find themselves being held responsible for allowing a situation to escalate to the point where a confrontation is inevitable, and violence ensues. So, it’s important that any dispute between workers is dealt with before it gets completely out of hand. By the same token, employers could be regarded as culpable if they allow staff to be put in a position where they may be confronted with violence from customers or members of the public.
The new legislation to protect emergency service workers is most welcome but could be extended further to cover more NHS front-line staff in particular, who are subject to increasing levels of violence and abuse. However, it’s also the responsibility of employers to make sure that everyone feels safe and risk-free when they come to work, and that confrontation is de-escalated before it gets out of control. If you’d like to talk to an employment law specialist about disciplinary procedures and how to handle confrontation in the workplace, talk to one of our experts today.