Exposure to traumatic events

Exposure to violent or traumatic events is a psychosocial hazard. Some jobs, such as those in mental health care or emergency services, involve consistent exposure to these events. Work-related violent or traumatic events are incidents that can cause fear and distress and involve exposure to abuse, the threat of harm or actual harm. The fear and distress from violent or traumatic events can lead to work-related stress, psychological injury and physical injury. The impact of traumatic experiences can arise from a single distressing event, or from the cumulative impact of many events over time, including direct or indirect exposure. In this page, we will break down how exposure to violent or traumatic events can be safely managed. 

It is an employers duty to provide a safe workplace as far as reasonably practicable under section 21 of the OHS Act 2004. Additionally, employer must consult HSRs on all issues of health and safety, including potential exposure to violent or traumatic events and how to manage this exposure. 

Aggression or Violence

Aggression or violence refers to conduct which exposes an employee to abuse, the threat of harm or actual harm and may cause fear and distress which can lead to a work-related physical or psychological injury. 

Workers in certain industries are much more likely to be exposed to aggression or violence than others. However, every employer under section 21 of the OHS Act has a duty to provide a safe workplace so far as is reasonably practicable. This means that they must control for the risk of aggression or violence in the workplace where that risk is exists. 

Examples of this hazard include: 

  • Verbal or physical assault 
  • Being bitten, spat at, scratched or kicked
  • Being threatened with or without a weapon 
  • Verbal abuse through phone or online client interactions 
  • Robbery

There are many measures that employers can take to control these hazards. Remember, the implementation of controls must be done in consultation with health and safety representatives (HSRs).

Examples of control measures include: 

  • Refusal of entry to customers with higher risk of violence or abuse 
  • Where possible, seperating employees from the public eg. with protective barriers or screens, secure employee areas and facilities, safe rooms etc. 
  • Processes and systems for staff reporting of incidents to ensure they are quickly identified, responded to, investigated, and trigger a review of existing controls as necessary
  • Develop and regularly review work systems and procedures in consultation with employees, including:

    - procedures for working in isolation or uncontrolled environments

    - procedures for opening and closing the business

    - monitoring employees working in the community or away from the workplace

    - processes to assess client needs and provide appropriately skilled employees

    - management plans for clients, patients or customers known to have a history of aggression and/or complex or challenging behaviours

  • Alter environmental factors to reduce emotional arousal or known behavioural triggers, for example noises
  • Ensure the building is secure, well maintained and secure entry and exits.
  • Provide skill-based training to employees where relevant, for example violence prevention measures, situational risk assessment, behavioural observations, positive behaviour strategies, de-escalation, and emotional regulation.
  • Where a particular work context is known to expose the employee to instances of aggression or violence, use controls that limit employees’ exposure to the hazard, or minimise the effect of the exposure on employees. Examples may include:

    - Support staff to have less time doing tasks with known high risk work-related violence exposure

    - provide professional post incident support including first aid

    - provide formal professional and clinical supervision for exposed employees. 

Tip: If a violent or aggressive incident has taken place in your workplace and you are an HSR, use your powers under S.69 (1) to request information about the incident. This information will be critical for any consultation you do to control incidents in the future with management. 

Exposure to traumatic events or content:

Traumatic experiences can involve threats to life and witnessing or experiencing serious injuries. They can overlap with aggression or violence. These events are common in certain industries. These include first responders, police and defence workers, emergency service workers and social workers. However, these events can occur in all industries.

Exposure to violence and aggression can also cause a trauma response. Despite this, it is more likely that a person will find and event traumatic if they consider the incident to be the following: 

  • unexpected
  • something they were unprepared for
  • unpreventable
  • uncontrollable
  • the result of intentional cruelty

Some examples of this hazard are as follows: 

  • Being exposed to (either by being involved or witnessing) a serious car or other motor vehicle/transport accident
  • Physical, verbal or sexual assault or witnessing this. 
  • Persistent bullying 
  • Workplace deaths or severe accidents, injuries or suicides. 
  • Robbery, war or terrorism. 
  • Being attacked with a needle. 

This list is not exhaustive. Traumatic events can occur in any workplace and come in many forms. 

Some examples of measures that can be taken to control these hazards include:

  • Design tasks so that exposure to traumatic content such a s graphic images, video, or sound is minimised as much as possible. 
  • Giving staff as much information as possible about the purpose of the task where workers will be exposed to the content as well as the potential content to allow staff to prepare and reduce the need to re-view the material as much as possible. 
  • Rotating activities or tasks to ensure adequate breaks from those likely to involve exposure to traumatic material
  • Working in pairs or teams
  • Software that allows staff to report exposure to distressing content to facilitate check-ins and understand when staff need time away from this content. 
  • Implement regular health screenings. 
  • Train staff adequately and ensure recruitment practices inform workers of the potential exposure levels to traumatic content.
  • Opportunities to debrief and ensure consistent approaches amongst staff.

For additional useful resources on managing exposure to violent or traumatic events see: 

1. WorkSafe's topic page on violent and traumatic events - contains substantial information on implementing controls for employers as well as detailed information on identifying the hazard.

2. Safe Work Australia's topic page on violent and traumatic events - contains substantial information on implementing controls for employers as well as detailed information on identifying the hazard. However, as OHS is state based legislation Safe Work Australia's advice does not carry legal weight but is still useful. 

3. The ANMF's ten point plan on addressing occupational violence

4. Mind Your Head's Risk Management Advice for Traumatic Events and Materials

5. Mind Your Head's Control Measures for Traumatic Events and Materials

Updated July 2023