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Articles - Education and Prevention
Written by Christine Bois   

The 'Safer Bars' Intervention for reducing bar violence

Christine Bois

Centre for Addiction on Mental Health, Suite 200, 100 Collip Circle, London, N4X 1A7, Canada.

Phone no: +1613 256 7625 Fax no: +1613 256 7624 E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health - formerly called the Addiction Research Foundation - is a government-funded body involved in research, treatment and prevention work. The goal of the 'Safer Bars' project has been to prevent violence from occurring in and around licensed establishments and to prevent the escalation of violence.

Drinking in bars is often associated with aggressive behaviour and high levels of consumption and contributes disproportionately to certain types of alcohol-related problems, such as injuries, death and impaired driving. Those between the ages of 20 and 24 are particularly at risk, since drinking in these settings accounts for 37% of their total alcohol consumption. All too often, we hear about people being injured, killed or sexually assaulted in relation to licensed establishments. This can involve police and ambulances, and there can be a lot of unhappy residents in the areas where the bars are located. It may also mean damage to stores and premises. Reports in the newspapers are not uncommon about these incidents.

Our research

We started our project based on research that had been done in Canada in about 1980. Trained observers went into 25 bars in Vancouver and recorded all the violent incidents over a period of time. They found that some bars had little violence and other bars with the same kind of clientele had violence all the time. There were a number of factors identified that contributed to the violence. In the late 1990s more observation was carried out to see what kind of aggression was occurring in large bars with young people. There is evidence that the effect of alcohol is a contributing factor to violence. Further, expectations about alcohol and the drinking environment also contribute to the aggression in and around the bars.

We decided to focus on the drinking environment since aggression is more likely in some bars than others. We know that young people drink a lot of alcohol in and around the bars and in Canada in the 1990s bar behaviour changed considerably. People no longer sit at tables but stand shoulder to shoulder in very large bars. You cannot have responsible beverage service in these bars. There was a major research project in Australia where a tourist area was losing business because of violence in the bar area. This project involved community action and the research showed that in fact, violence in and around the bars was reduced.

Our project was a research and development project. We recruited bar staff to review all of our material and consult with us. Bars volunteered to have their staff trained and we had a number of partnerships with health units, police, and community safety committees. There were police trainers and bar managers who gave us advice and we evaluated every training session. The evaluation consisted of an hour and a half focus group and an individual questionnaire after the training. As the training was developed, after each evaluation, changes were made to the content and the format of the training.

What has been done?

We have developed a risk assessment workbook for bar owners and bar managers. It allows them to assess risk factors for their bar. It is designed so that one side of the page has the factors and a rating scale. On the other page is an explanation. The explanation gives some ideas about what may be contributing to some of the problems in the bar.

There are sections on maintaining a safe and friendly atmosphere: physical comfort and cleanliness; the layout of the bar (if your pool tables are in line with the washroom you are going to have problems with people bumping into each other); rules and orders; closing-time; actions and behaviours of staff; and other aspects such as hiring staff.

The second component that we are developing is a legal pamphlet for bar staff and bar owners. Bar managers are particularly interested in the legal issues because there are a lot of lawsuits under both criminal and civil law. We have a pamphlet that describes legal issues and each issue is illustrated with a court case. For example, one hotel was fined $250,000 because the doorman hit and injured a man when he wanted a candle. This may seem silly but those are the kind of situations that can happen.

The training programme

The training programme is a major component of the ‘Safer Bars’ project. It takes three hours and it is very much a participatory approach with group discussions, exercises and role-playing. The role-plays are popular and we use actual case studies from our observations, so real situations are dealt with. It is a 'peer learning' model because the participants have had experience working in bars and they can learn from each other.

There is a participant workbook for the staff to follow the key learnings in the training. A video of about 14 minutes is shown: it is a story about a new member of door staff who gets into trouble during his first night on the job. The more experienced member of door staff then teaches him about how to de-escalate the aggression.

The content of the training covers understanding bar room aggression; assessing the situation; knowing yourself and keeping your cool; non-verbal techniques to communicate with someone who is intoxicated; and responding to problem situations and legal situations. All of the components of the ‘Safer Bars’ programme are available both in French and English.

More importantly, our training is really for all bar staff and not just door staff because working as a team is important. People behind the bar, the service people and others notice early indications of problems and can prevent those situations from escalating. Good communication is essential between staff and with patrons.

Our philosophy is that we can change the way that bars view violence. Rather than viewing it as a part of the bar scene, violence and injuries can be reduced. Many bars and their staff made a significant contribution to the development of our project and the materials.


Wells S, Graham K, & West P (2000) The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Responses by security staff to aggressive incidents in public drinking settings. Journal of Drug Issues. (In press)

Graham K, Leonard KE, Room R, Wild TC, Phil RO, Bois C, & Single E (1998). Current Directions in Research on Understanding and Preventing Intoxicated Aggression. Addiction, 93(5) 659-676.


Our valuable member Christine Bois has been with us since Sunday, 19 December 2010.