Violent threats and abuse rated as biggest risks to council staff

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Kawerau council staff have rated the threat of violence and abuse from the public as their top safety concern.

Kawerau District Council

Physical measures such as barriers and workplace training have been introduced to help staff cope with some members of the public. Photo: Charlotte Jones / LDR

More than 80 percent of Kawerau District Council staff surveyed in October identified the public as a threat to their safety while at work, making it the top safety concern in the organisation.

This was followed by work-related stress, slips, trips and falls, lone working, and manual handling as the top five concerns.

Deputy mayor Faylene Tunui said in an audit and risk committee meeting on Tuesday that the threat from the public had long been a concern of staff and that, having a background in customer service herself, this was always worrying.

She asked health and safety officer Paul Snook what was being done to manage the risk.

Snook said a lot of physical measures had been put in place in the workplace and training had been provided for staff in conflict de-escalation. Physical measures included changes to customer service areas, duress alarms, CCTV, and swipe tags for doors.

“The customer conflict awareness training helps our staff understand, or recognise, when there’s a situation between themselves and a customer which is starting to escalate. They learn how to de-escalate and if that’s unsuccessful they learn how to step back,” Snook said.

He said the council had left in place the Perspex screens installed as a measure to protect against the spread of Covid-19 on its counters as these provided not only physical protection but also protection from illness.

“The staff are very keen to keep those in place,” he said. “When they have been cleaning the screens, they’ve realised what does travel between customers and staff.”

The council has also kept in place other Covid-19 measures, such as regular sanitising of public spaces and distance markers to keep people spaced apart.

Lockdown processes in place

Manager planning, compliance and capability Chris Jenson said all customer service areas had lockdown procedures in place to keep the public away from council staff if necessary.

If a situation at this level occurs a debrief will happen afterwards so staff can identify any strengths and weaknesses to ensure the procedure is improved for next time.

Chair Philip Jones said he was concerned at the risk of work-related stress, particularly large workloads on council staff during what had been an unusual year.

“We have a long-term plan which should be business as usual, but it’s been skewed by Covid but also there’s this request for information from the Department of Internal Affairs over the three waters and that’s a significant piece of work for any council on top of everything else,” he said.

Jones asked what strategies had been put in place to ensure the council did not get overstressed staff because of this large workload.

Chief executive Russell George said a lot of staff felt they had not had a break as many were involved with Civil Defence work during the lockdown in addition to their usual workload.

George said the council was encouraging people to take a longer break over Christmas, but council would need to balance that with work on the long-term plan and the three waters.

“We have a lot of essential services to deliver so it’s not as simple as saying we’ll close council,” he said.

Jenson said the council had been incredibly aware of this issue and “has been at lengths” to encourage team leaders to be alert at recognising signs of stress and tiredness in staff during this difficult year.

“We did survey the workforce a couple of months ago around this issue and we got some positive feedback as well as some areas that we need to look at,” he said.

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