Retail workers as young as 14 are facing abuse from customers, as South Australia’s workplace safety regulator says employers need to do more to address the risk of violence and aggression.

Key points:

  • South Australia’s workplace safety watchdog orders 28 retailers to improve worker safety during a statewide crackdown on the sector
  • SafeWork SA identified a lack of training for retail workers in how to deal with violence, aggression and armed robbery 
  • It says safety measures such as security screens and CCTV were also a major area of non-compliance

Connor Boyle has worked at McDonald’s for six years and said the abuse from customers can be “pretty tough”.

“I’ve been threatened, I’ve been belittled basically, I feel defeated after every shift,” he said.

He said he also holds concerns for younger staff members.

“I feel worried for the crew – crew from as young as 14-and-a-half – and it’s just not fair for them to be yelled at all,” he said.

“Some customers don’t just realise they’re yelling at small kids who are [at] their first job.”

Gabbi Colloff said she has faced verbal abuse from customers since she started working at Coles three years ago. 

“My first time I was verbally abused by a customer, I was 15,” she said.

She said she had received abuse for “trying to do my job”.

“Every shift I’m scared, I’ll be honest,” she said.

Gabbi Colloff says it’s “sad” and “disappointing” that retail workers face abuse from customers.(ABC News)

South Australia’s workplace safety regulator has identified a lack of staff training on how to deal with violence, aggression and armed robberies during a recent inspection of retail workplaces across the state.

SafeWork SA said its inspectors attended 89 retail workplaces between June 2022 and January 2023 and issued 28 improvement notices.

Its inspectors found a lack of training and safe systems of work – including security screens, duress alarms, signage and CCTV – were the two highest areas of non-compliance.

Ms Colloff said staff do receive training, but it was not always effective.

“We’re taught how to de-escalate problems, but these methods don’t always work,” she said.

Mr Boyle agreed that staff training only goes so far.

“Some people you just can’t de-escalate, and you just have to call the police,” he said.

“On overnights [shifts], we see people fighting. I’ve seen people come round the counter, try to start fights with the manager and crew.”

SafeWork SA Executive Director, Glenn Farrell, said employers were responsible for limiting the risks of aggression and violence in the workplace.

“Security guards, safety barriers, duress alarms, good signage – these are all things that contribute to a good, safe system of work,” he said.

SafeWork SA ordered the installation of transparent screens at the McDonald’s on Hindley Street earlier this year following reports of violence and abuse towards staff.(ABC News: Bethanie Alderson)

Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association secretary Josh Peak said while staff training was important, physical safety barriers were “the best deterrent measures”.

“We’ve seen that at McDonald’s Hindley Street,” he said.

“Not a single worker has been assaulted behind the counter since we put screens in to stop people going behind the counter and assaulting workers.”

The South Australian government said SA Police had laid 215 criminal charges in relation to violence and aggression in the retail sector between August 25 last year and August 31 this year, following new regulations to increase penalties for people found guilty of assaulting retail workers.

Mr Peak said abuse of retail and fast food workers “must end”. 

“There’s no doubt the treatment of retail workers and fast food workers throughout the pandemic was quite frankly appalling and unfortunately the statistics continue to tell us that it’s continuing to rise,” he said.

Posted , updated