Nobody should ever be subjected to threats, verbal abuse or physical attack while carrying out their job.

When that happens to health staff and other public service workers who are trying to help people, sometimes even saving their lives, it is a sign of something deeply wrong in our society. A steep rise in reported violent incidents in a number of health boards over the past three years reveals the problem is widespread. Figures from NHS Lothian, where 1888 violent incidents against employees were recorded last year and a further 134 in the first 18 days of 2013, compared with just 274 in 2009, indicate an alarming seven-fold increase over three years.

The problem is also acute in other areas. In Lanarkshire there has been a tripling of attacks over the past three years, Fife has suffered a 20% increase, while the 16% increase in Greater Glasgow and Clyde translates into almost 5000 employees so far this financial year. Such a horrifying figure reveals the persistent level of violence faced by far too many NHS staff at all levels.

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It is fervently to be hoped that such significant rises across the country are due to greater reporting of incidents which would not have been officially recorded previously.

Even if this is the case, however, it is likely that some doctors, nurses and other staff are still suffering in silence. Dr Malcolm Bruce, a consultant psychiatrist in Lothian, suggests the number of cases is likely to be much higher, not just in Lothian but across Scotland too, because research shows most cases of physical or verbal abuse go unreported.

In some cases verbal or physical violence will be the result of a patient's psychiatric or physical condition. Health staff accept this is part of the job but it is essential that there are sufficient numbers with the appropriate training to deal with outbursts effectively. There are concerns that the current economic squeeze is paring staff numbers to the bare minimum: when record numbers of patients have to wait more than 12 hours in emergency departments as has happened recently in Lothian, for example, tensions are bound to mount.

The unacceptable level of attacks on emergency service workers, including ambulance crews, prompted the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005, which provides penalties of up to 12 months' imprisonment, a £10,000 fine or both. Other public service workers, such as local authority staff, have also reported increasing levels of attacks. The message that all forms of abuse are unacceptable must be reinforced. That requires every incident, wherever it takes place, to be reported and action taken against the offender.