Audit, Compliance and Risk Blog

Protecting against workplace violence during COVID

Posted by Jon Elliott on Tue, Nov 17, 2020


During the COIVD-19 pandemic, there have been many reports of angry arguments between people who don’t want to wear masks or practice social distance and retail staff members trying to enforce local requirements. Some of these confrontations escalate to violence. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provide formal guidelines to retail businesses, offering ways for protecting workers by “Limiting Workplace Violence Associated with COVID-19 Prevention Policies in Retail and Services Businesses.” The remainder of this note describes CDC’s latest guidance. 

How are key terms defined?

For purposes of this guidance, CDC defines the following terms:

  • Workplace violence is “violent acts, including physical assaults and threats of assault, directed toward persons at work or on duty.” Workplace violence includes

    • Threat: verbal, written, and physical expressions that could reasonably be interpreted as intending to cause harm.

    • Verbal assault: yelling, swearing, insulting, or bullying another person with the intent of hurting or causing harm. Unlike physical assaults, the intent is not necessarily to cause physical harm, but negative emotions of the person being assaulted.

    • Physical assault: hitting, slapping, kicking, pushing, choking, grabbing, or other physical contact with the intent of causing injury or harm.

  • Conflict resolution is the process of finding a peaceful end to a conflict or argument.

  • A nonviolent response is a peaceful approach to address a situation in which a person is aggressive or threatening. This technique involves remaining calm, giving a person space, making sure other people are in the area, and not touching the person or trying to forcibly remove them.

These definitions are consistent with terminology used in workplace violence prevention and evaluation. Notice that this definition of workplace violence does not specify the source of the threat or action, which may include customers and clients (the focus in this guidance), co-workers, or uninvited people. This definition also does not specify the perpetrator’s reason for violence, which focuses here on reaction against health measures, but more generally includes a broad range of other motivations. 

Which workplaces is CDC addressing?

CDC is providing guidance for workplaces that provide goods and services directly to customers, particularly stores and restaurants. Employees in these businesses interact with walk-in customers, currently under restrictions issued by state and local health officers. Typical restrictions include masks, restrictions on how many customers can enter a location at a time and which areas of the location they can move through, and requirements to maintain social distance while onsite.

In these locations, employers generally require customer-facing employees to announce COVID-based restrictions, and may expect them to take steps to enforce these restrictions. Most customers will read and follow directions posted on entry doors. Many who require reminders will adjust their masks or step back when asked to do so, but some will refuse either because of planned noncompliance or spontaneous outburst. CDC offers ways to reduce the likelihood of these potentially dangerous situations, and ways for responding to those that do occur.

What does CDC recommend?

The CDC guidelines identify a number of actions employers can take. These can be sorted into several categories as follows:

  • Provide formal direction/guidance to customers (which clarifies expectations and reduces surprises):

    • Advertise COVID-related policies on the business website (masks, distancing, maximum numbers inside)

    • Post signs with policies at entrances

    • Offer customers options to reduce contact (pickups curbside, in parking lots or at entrances; home deliveries; staggered/alternate hours)

  • Provide employee protections, which may include:

    • Barriers

    • staffing such as 2-on-duty teams

    • situation evaluations and reporting (within the workplace, to security, to 911, as appropriate)

    • security systems and alarms (e.g., panic buttons)

    • safe spaces to which employees can retreat if threatened

  • Train employees in

    • Workplace safety systems and procedures

    • Customer interaction protocols

    • Threat identification and assessment, including warning signs such as non-verbal cues (body language, clenched fists, etc.), and verbal cues (tone and volume, words)

    • Conflict de-escalation and resolution

    • Protective measures during escalating or dangerous situations

What Do’s and Don’ts does CDC offer employees?

The guidelines include several Do and Don’t items, including:

  • Do

    • Attend all trainings

    • Report any perceived threats or violent actions

    • Remain aware of and support co-workers and other customers

  • Don’t:

    • Argue with anyone who’s being threatening; instead de-escalate or make a safe retreat 

    • Attempt to force anyone to comply

What’s Next?

These suggestions are directed toward retail operations, which have the highest relative numbers of customers and interactions. They are also relevant in any workplace where non-employees enter to conduct business or visit. If the organization already has workplace violence prevention policies and procedures, these CDC recommendations provide a timely reason to review and enhance such activities.

Self-Assessment Checklist

Does the organization provide retail sales, or direct goods and services to the public?

If so, are any of these locations subject to public health or other directives to protect against spread of COVID-19?

If so, does the organization have policies and procedures to protect employees against possible violence by customers or invitees rejecting COVID-19 safety measures?

Where Do I Go For More Information?

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About the Author

Jon Elliott is President of Touchstone Environmental and has been a major contributor to STP’s product range for over 30 years. 

Mr. Elliott has a diverse educational background. In addition to his Juris Doctor (University of California, Boalt Hall School of Law, 1981), he holds a Master of Public Policy (Goldman School of Public Policy [GSPP], UC Berkeley, 1980), and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (Princeton University, 1977).

Mr. Elliott is active in professional and community organizations. In addition, he is a past chairman of the Board of Directors of the GSPP Alumni Association, and past member of the Executive Committee of the State Bar of California's Environmental Law Section (including past chair of its Legislative Committee).

You may contact Mr. Elliott directly at:

Tags: Health & Safety, OSHA, Workplace violence, Coronavirus, CDC, Covid-19, CCOHS