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Can I defend myself if I work at an organization with a no-touch policy?

We teach self-defence in several of our programs, including our communications & descalation course. Over the years, we have taught these programs to numerous companies, organizations and non-profits in a wide variety of industries. When the topic of self-defence comes up, we often hear "Oh, we have a no-touch policy, so we aren't allowed to defend ourselves." Because this is such a common, yet incorrect statement, it was time to write an article to debunk some of the myths associated around no-touch or hands-off policies in organizations.

Many organizations now have "no-touch" policies in order to respect the physical boundaries of the client, and also to limit the staff in how much they physically get involved in situations where a client is exhibiting high-risk behaviour towards themselves or others - to minimize potential injury to the client and themselves as staff since most are not trained in this skill. Organizations don't want their staff to have any reason to be heavy-handed with their clients (whether it's an ego or hero complex), which can lead to expensive lawsuits and years of trauma, and a tarnished reputation if the situation does not end well. However, if your personal safety is immediately threatened, what can you do, if anything? So let's dive into this...

First off, no-touch rarely means you're never allowed to have physical contact with a client. There are almost always caveats to these types of policies. When we ask clarifying questions to those in organizations with no-touch policies, they almost always say "Well, under certain circumstances we can." So then it's a matter of unpacking what those specific circumstances are. Usually touch is allowed if all other attempts of de-escalation have failed and the client is causing immediate harm to themselves, others or you (or sometimes property), for the sole purpose of preventing the client from further injuring themselves or others. This is often especially true if you are working with a high-risk or vulnerable population, or the staff are trained in handling high-risk clients or stakes (such as casinos). If you are not trained in physically limiting dangerous client behaviour, your "hands-on caveat" may involve putting large objects between the disregulated client and others (such as doors or tables) to increase distance and time, helping others get out of the facility to a safe location, or trying a different strategy to de-escalate. This may also be dependent on your own training, skills, experience and confidence. If you are trained in control tactics, you likely work in security or protection and have taken physical training specifically for these situations and are permitted within your role to control dangerous behaviour under certain circumstances.

Second, defending yourself and potentially going hands-on to prevent the client from causing further harm is not synonymous with assaulting the client. We often encounter those who think that self-defence is the same as intentionally harming the other person. It is not. Self-defence starts with awareness of escalating behaviours, verbal de-escalation, taking proactive measures like increasing time and distance between themselves and the person to avoid getting stuck in a dangerous position (such as moving to an open area or putting large objects between you and them), escaping and evading (walking/running away) attempts at harm or control, and finally, blocking incoming strikes if you are not able to escape. When you block incoming strikes, you use specific parts of your body to deflect and minimize the impact of incoming strikes. Counterattacks (striking the attacker back) are only pertinent if your life is in danger, to stop the attacker from continuing their assault, and there are no other options for escape.

Third, you have a right to defend yourself and others under the Canadian Criminal Code (CCC), section 34 Defence of Person. Read our article to learn more about this legislation gives us protections as well as limitations. Also, as of January 1, 2021, organizations that are in federally-regulated industries or workplaces are required to have a Workplace Harassment & Violence Prevention policy. If you are in a workplace that is not federally-regulated, your personal safety may be covered under an Occupational Health & Safety policy (OH&S). Plus, most if not all employers respect and care for their staff so none of them want to see their employees turned into punching bags and as such, often support their staff through a reasonable empowerment culture.

To clarify everything so far, there are three separate concepts in play in this discussion:

  • Physically defending yourself or others - This is always ok, provided you use every proactive measure first to avoid the assault, including increasing time and distance and blocking incoming strikes (and methods previously mentioned). You can use counterattacks of reasonable means only if your safety is in immediate jeopardy.

  • Physically controlling an escalated client from harming themselves or others - This depends on your corporate policies, your role, your skills and your personal line of comfort.

  • Physically assaulting a client (or anyone) - This is never ok.

So, what do you need to do from here?

  1. Know which corporate policies protect your personal safety and what they say. Check your Workplace Harassment & Violence Prevention policy, or Occupational Health & Safety policy (OH&S). Also, it's a good idea to understand CCC Section 34 Defence of Person.

  2. Understand your corporate policies around when you can and can't go hands-on with unsafe clients. Talk to your supervisors to clarify specific situations to ensure it is clear to you. Sometimes these caveats are not formally written in a policy, but it is an unwritten permission.

  3. Understand what your corporate policies say regarding what you can do in high-risk situations. If you have an absolute no-touch policy, find out what you are expected to do - evacuate, call security/police? If you are permitted to go hands-on in certain circumstances, find out what you can do - pull people away from each other, physically control the assailant, or make arrests?

  4. Develop your situational awareness, learn how to de-escalate and learn some basic self-defence. The sooner we can recognize danger, the more likely we are able to effectively avoid and manage it, before it turns physical and dangerous.

Tip of Spear has been providing training in the self-defence, personal safety and protection career sector for over a decade. This article is to be used as a guide only, and not as professional legal advice. For further questions about your specific corporate policies, or to book training, Contact Us.

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