Physical abuse in the workplace

Emmanuel Oppong Peprah

Physical abuse is rapidly becoming a ‘normal’ reality for a lot of employees. Right from those who handle money, provide care, enforcement, and the like, people face the risk of being abused at various workplaces on a daily basis. However due to several reasons such as the lack of employment opportunities in the country, many are suffering in silence whiles others are not even aware of the danger they are in.

It is therefore important to know what physical abuse is, the forms and shapes it takes, the effect it has on victims, the jobs that are more susceptible to physical abuse, and how to prevent it in the workplace. This article is very essential currently because cases of abuse in many forms are rising exponentially in the country.

A workplace is usually an environment consisting of different people coming from diverse backgrounds with the sole purpose of coming together to achieve the vision of the employer. The different people coming together include employees, customers, suppliers, contractors, visitors, etc. The general notion is that all these people are pulled into one place due to the vision of an employer. The possibility of no similarity between these groups of people means different temperaments, attitudes, behaviour, levels of reasoning, culture, and comprehension. It therefore becomes obvious that where two or more people come together to achieve one purpose, there are bound to be disagreements. Subsequently, these perspective differences become the breeding grounds for abuses in the workplace which can be in so many forms but this article looks at solely that of physical abuse.

Abuse is any action that injures or harms another. There are various forms and shapes it takes and becomes physical when the action of the abuser results in the bodily harm of the abused. Therefore, physical abuse in the workplace is any unsolicited or unwanted bodily contact or harm which happens in a working environment. This unwanted bodily harm can be in the form of a slap, shove, punch, or any other unwarranted physical contact. Simply put, physical abuse can range from physical aggression such as kicking and hitting, all the way to homicide. For abuse to take place there should be two principal actors: the person abusing the other person (i.e. the abuser) and the person being abused (i.e. the “abusee”). An employee can be at risk of physical abuse from a manager, supervisor, co-worker, client, stakeholder, supplier, or any other visitor to the firm.

In the same way that an employee could be physically abused by the employer, the vice versa is also possible. Besides, this form of abuse does not even need the two players to be at different levels of the organizational hierarchy because a worker can physically abuse a coworker at the same level. Unlike other forms of abuse such as emotional abuse, physical abuse is easily ascertained. Also, an abusive boss in the office is known, making any staff to be careful with dealing with such a superior. However, with third parties outside such as customers or visitors, not much is known about the way they behave. And since we do not have much data on individuals to trace them and cause their arrest if they cause harm to another person, being physically abused by such persons is extra dangerous and unfair since they can get away with it. For example, if a staff slaps another staff, it becomes obvious that an abuse has taken place and therefore the matter can be reported to the police for investigation and arrest. However, if a prospective customer enters an office building, causes an argument with the frontline staff, slaps the employee and leaves the building, the abuser, if not caught there and then, might get away with it. In the same way, a criminal on a motorbike can abuse a law enforcement officer by the roadside and speed away. This article therefore focuses on physical abuse perpetrated by third parties or other stakeholders outside the organization and not by a superior or a coworker.

Occupations that are Prone to Physical Abuse

Although no occupation is entirely immune to physical abuse, people in some professions are more probable to suffer this kind of abuse in their line of duty than others. First on the list, because they are the people who face the biggest risk, are workers who per their job description handle money and other valuables. In Ghana, this category includes bankers, mobile money agents, postal and courier service staff (including the motor riders offering delivery services), cashiers, bullion van occupants, storekeepers, shop assistants (from big supermarkets to small shops), church treasurers, driver’s mates, etc. The people in this bracket face the biggest threat from both customers and non-customers – criminals and armed robbers to be precise. That is, if you are into any profession which demands of you to handle money or any valuable, you stand the highest chance of getting abused physically in the highest degree imaginable.

The next category of the profession in Ghana who stands the chance of getting physically abuse is those with enforcement and inspection duties. This means all officers in the enforcement agencies, revenue collection agents, the people making the inspectorate team of any public agency in Ghana, and even the ticket inspectors at the various “trotro” and taxi stations. Per our nature not just as Ghanaians but as human beings, we naturally do not want to obey laws and follow regulations. Therefore, anybody or person tasked with ensuring that laws are followed by default becomes our enemy. Hence, causing physical harm to such persons in order to get away with breaking the law comes almost naturally. For example, our policemen and women in the course of executing their duties suffer a lot of physical violence from criminals and lawbreakers. Some are even abused to the extent of being maimed for life. I am sure witnessing a driver’s mates or conductors being slapped and fought with, is a sight that most Ghanaians are familiar with especially when fuel prices are increased and transport fares also get increased accordingly. The least said about what the people tasked with ensuring compliance from the various district assemblies and inspectorate teams go through, the better. We simply hate laws and regulations, especially those that do not allow us to engage in our lucrative illegal businesses. Therefore, we decide to push back by unleashing our anger on those tasked to enforce the laws.

The next group of workers is people who deal with mentally ill or unstable, potentially violent, and temporarily insane people. Therefore the typical profession being referred to here are mental health workers (for the mentally unstable), prison officers as well as other security and enforcement agents (for the potentially violent), and bar, drinking spots, and nightclub attendants (for the temporarily insane). Due to the mental instability and violent predisposition of the clients or people that this category of professionals deals with, they can be physically abused anytime in the line of duty. The plight of workers at the various mental hospitals can only be understood by them. They lack most of the basic protective gears which are supposed to cushion them a bit from the attacks of the mentally ill. Therefore, meeting a staff of the mental hospital with bite marks, physical bruises, and other injuries is a normal sight. Similarly, because excessive drinking comes with temporary insanity, people working at places where alcohol is being sold get physically and even sexually abused periodically. That is, anytime a person belonging to any of the professions mentioned in this class puts on his/her uniform to go to work, it is as if the uniform has an inscription at the back that reads “I’m available to be abused”.

People who provide training and education such as teachers, those who provide advice such as social workers, and those who provide care such as doctors, nurses and ambulance staff are another category of professionals usually at risk of suffering physical abuse. For example, there have been a lot of cases involving parents beating a teacher up because of a treatment they do not agree with being meted out to their wards. Recently and especially during this Covid-19 era, ambulance workers have not been left out of the physical abuse party, since they have been subjects of numerous armed robbery attacks with some drivers being shot whiles the paramedics also get raped and suffer other physical violence. Whiles social workers are being pelted with stones in some communities, doctors and nurses are being harassed and abused at every turn, especially those on night duties.

The last category, as far as this article is concerned, are those who work alone. The work ‘aloners’ are domestic workers, taxi drivers, repair and maintenance agents (such as plumbers, tv and ‘fridge’ repairers), sales agents, those into installations, kiosk operators, petty traders, sex-workers, cleaners, riders, road-side sellers, etc. These people are mostly seen as easy targets by those with bad intentions about them. For instance, domestic workers and maids suffer from the hands of their ‘madams’ regularly. Whiles some are denied food, others are given their daily doses of slaps, head-knocks, pinches, and made to work longer hours than they can handle. Whiles taxi drivers especially those who work at night are getting their vehicles snatched from them, others end up dead with body parts missing. By the nature of their work and the fact that it is illegal in Ghana, sex workers are mostly treated less than animals by perverts and other women-abusers and get away with it because they are not reported to the police. Some sex workers even fall into the hands of evil men who end up killing them. That is, workers in this profession bracket are not safe.

Forms of Physical Abuse

Physical abuse in the workplace can take many forms. The obvious ones are kicking, punching, biting, hitting, throwing an object at someone which could possible cause a physical harm, grabbing, scratching, pushing, slapping, shoving, strangling, force feeding, and choking. Spitting or coughing on someone and any aggressive behaviour which can create a fear about impending violence can also be a form of physical abuse. In addition, unwanted and uninvited gestures such as touching an employee’s face, hair or any part of the body falls under the non-obvious behaviours that qualify as physical abuse. Again, using physical force to push or pull someone from one point to another in the office without the person’s will is a form of abuse. Similarly, pinning an employee against the wall, or a door, or the floor is tantamount to physical abuse.

Effects of Physical Abuse

The effects of physical abuse cannot be overemphasized because this is one of the abuse forms that can result in the death of the victim. There is a higher tendency for the abusee in the office to lose confidence in his/her work, become less active, constantly depressed and anxious, the want to stay away from the working environment, become scared, lose trust in everybody in the organization, have physical bruises or be maimed for life, or ultimately die. It can even affect life outside work.

If an office abuse is not stopped, persistent physical mistreatment can lead to not only physical bruises but psychological disorders, drug use, tobacco and alcohol abuse. This form of workplace abuse can even lead to the abusee committing suicide, especially in circumstances where the abusee feels trapped with no hope of getting out of the abusive situation. Again physical violence at the workplace can really dampen the morale and zeal of the abusee which will cause the organization to lose more in terms of paying higher compensation and insurance premiums and the indirect cost for employee absenteeism.

How to Prevent Physical Abuse in the Workplace

To the employer, here are a few suggestions to make sure your employees are not physically abused in the workplace by customers, suppliers, visitors and any other third party to the firm. First of all, you need to make sure you have provided a secured working environment. Providing such an environment involves making sure your company‘s building or place of business is at a safe place and the working hours are also restricted to safe times. There are some areas that are designated as ‘flash points’ where violence, armed robbery and other social vices are prevalent. Siting your establishment at such places will be tantamount to putting the lives of your workers at a greater risk. Similarly, restricting your business hours to unsafe times such as 2pm to 11pm might not be smart, unless you are probably shuttling all your staff to the doorsteps of their homes. Again, providing a safer working environment also means that, as an employer, you make sure that none of your staff is working alone in an isolated location, especially the field staff. In some instances, it will also be advisable to publicly display the security measures your firm has put in place to deal with trouble makers which has the potential to deter customers and other visitors to act aggressively towards your staff.  As an employer, creating a safe space for people to work also means providing a highly effective supervision and management system which depicts the location of your staff at any point in time as well as what each of them is doing and also provide a reasonable waiting time for clients to prevent violent clashes between workers and clients.

Although it is becoming rampant for one to see a security personnel at the premises of various companies, the perceived ‘toothlessness’ of some of these security guards does not make employees feel safe. Due to the fact that every company wants to cut cost, most of them go for security firms with cheaper invoice amounts which translate to poor training of their personnel who are also ill-resourced. Hence, being protected by a security guard who was not trained properly, not happy with his/her pay and physically looks less-fit than the employee does, does not in any way guarantee employee protection. This article is therefore suggesting to employers to go for the highly recommended security firms and should not base selection on money because the security of their staff should be paramount. Even if expenditure on some corporate benefits should be reduced in order to afford well-trained and highly-resourced security personnel, it is worth it.

Another way employers can ensure their employees are not physically abused is making sure the evidence of cash availability is reduced and replaced by electronic payment methods. It is quite evident that when armed robbers visit any facility, it is the employee in-charge of the cash and valuables who suffer physical abuse the more. Therefore, it will be a good decision to make sure clients make most payments via bank or electronic transfers instead of trooping into your premises with physical cash. This will decrease the incentive for robbery and physical violence.

One other unconventional measure that this article is proposing to employers to prevent physical abuse by third parties on their employees is the provision of self-defense training for the staff. That is, ones ability to protect his/her self cannot be underestimated. Self-defense skills can always come in handy if a person comes under attack or have a firm belief that his/her life is in danger. Many forms of physical abuse such as slapping or kicking happen so fast that before others are aware of what is going on, the staff would have been abused already. Therefore having the skill to defend one’s self means the ability for the victim to escape harm before actual help comes.

Installation of physical barriers is also another way to go. With workplaces that require customers to interact directly with your staff, providing a service counter is a smart choice. For example in firms where clients are supposed to make physical contact with your employees to demand invoices or billings, a glass barrier between the client and staff as seen in some banking halls is necessary to prevent any client from even thinking of physically abusing your staff. Staff cubicles and offices should not only be designated as ‘staff only’ but also be provided with a security protocol such as a code or card systems that actually only allows staff to enter. This provides security from bodily harm from a customer. Lastly, it is also important for employers to provide a kind of safe area for staff to ‘run’ to incase of emergency or perceived harassment.  Additionally, the provision of detection measures in the form of security video cameras, and beepers to alert staff of visitors assessing unauthorized and secured areas are also steps taken to prevent physical abuse in your premises.



Every employer has a legal, social, and ethical responsibility to provide a safer working environment for his/her employees. Resources spent to ensure the safety of employees should not be seen as expenditure but investment. Employees are also to take their personal security very seriously and make sure they avoid situations that pose a threat to their safety. Physical abuse does not only affect victims physically but psychologically as well. Therefore, if the only language that an abuser understands can only be spoken by the police, one should not wait a moment in reporting as such. Physical abuse should be prevented at all cost. As employers and employees play their part, customers should also exercise restraint and be mindful that the employee you meet who represents the company you have an issue with, is just doing that: representing the company. Many at times, the frontline staff that you want to show your dissatisfaction to by abusing him/her had nothing to do with the managerial decision that you are angry about. Just understand that, the receptionist, or sales person, or the teller, or any frontline staff that you deal with as a customer is another individual with rights and laws protecting him/her from any form of abuse. Therefore you have no right to abuse any staff of any firm.

About Author

The writer isa a researcher who is very passionate about employee issues. You can correspond with him through [email protected].

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