Legislation around Self-Defence in a Potentially Violent Situation

Prevention of violence in the workplace is the legislative responsibility of an employer. However, if it does occur, self-defence can be used under certain conditions. Risk assessments must be conducted by employers to prevent violence from occurring within the workplace.

There has been a rise in violence and episodes of physical assault within the workplace, even in the form of threats made against employees. This rise has led UK health and safety bodies, such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), to respond to this problem and ensure that the workplaces of businesses are kept safe. An employer has the responsibility to ensure that all employees and work associates are aware of the existing legislation regarding violent situations in the workplace.

What is the employer’s responsibility regarding violence in the workplace?

An employer in the UK has the legislative responsibility to protect employees from violence, aggression and abuse. Whether this violence, aggression or abuse comes from the public or other employees does not matter – it is still the employer’s responsibility to ensure employees are protected.

The Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1974 establish the legislative responsibility for employers to conduct ‘suitable and sufficient’ risk assessments of employees. These risk assessments will include analysing the relationships which exist within the workplace to decide whether there is any tension or conflict between individuals that could possibly escalate into violence. This must be recorded and documented for employers to show during any investigations conducted into the organisation.

The UK Home Office conducted an investigation into violent situations which are rising within businesses and organisations in the UK. The study found that individuals working within the security and protective service industry are the highest risk group subject to violent situations. Following this group it tends to be health care workers (such as nurses) which is subject to violence in the workplace. This rise in violence should not be tolerated. The UK has cracked down on the legislation related to such situations.

So, what is the legislation regarding self-defence in a potentially violent situation?

The law regarding self-defence is as follows:

Reasonable force can be used if needed to defend oneself, but it must not be out of proportion to the attack involved. An employer will subsequently be liable if the action of the employee is considered to be unreasonable and out of proportion to the initial unleash of violence.

If an employer does not conduct a risk assessment which fairly analyses the personal safety of employees, then an employee has the right to resign or claim unfair constructive dismissal if their employer has breached the duty of care through not providing protection. Ultimately, if this has left an employee within a situation of ‘serious and imminent’ danger, which may have arisen within a violent situation, then the employee has the right to take matters into their own hands and protect themselves.

Steps to protect yourself as an employee, could even be your decision to leave the workplace altogether because you feel threatened by another employee or work associate. If the conditions which exist are sufficient, then an employer cannot condemn an employee for leaving due to not feeling sufficiently protected. The employee has the right not to be subject to detriment short of dismissal, such a loss of pay, disciplinary action or a demotion.

For example, if an employee has experienced physical violence, threats due to their sex or race, or harassment, then they have the right to defend themselves, and the employer should support this. The employer will be found liable for this violent situation if it is evident that they did not conduct necessary steps to prevent the act. Ways in which an employer can prove that they attempted to reduce harassment or violence within workplace can be through conducting training courses, disciplinary sanctions and policies which state that violence is not tolerated. All of these steps must be recorded and documented for the Health and Safety Executive to take them seriously.

As an employer it can be certainly difficult to prepare for all aspects of violence within the workplace. If violence does take place and the employer is unsure how to act, they can consult the following steps:

Consult the Protection from Harassment Act 1997

Apply for Anti-Social Behaviour Orders upon particular troublesome employees


Seek compensation through the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority

Violent situations can occur randomly and spontaneously, but it is always wise as an employer to ensure legislation and training regarding violence in the workplace is circulated around the organisation. This will ensure that all employees and work associates are aware of what their rights and legal duties are.

Get New and Exclusive Insights Direct to Your Inbox!