Traffic wardens and teachers to get bullet-proof vests

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Aggro from the great British public is taking its toll. This month traffic wardens join a growing band of workers who are so regularly hit and abused that they are being issued with body armour.

Aggro from the great British public is taking its toll. This month traffic wardens join a growing band of workers who are so regularly hit and abused that they are being issued with body armour.

Protective suits once worn only by special forces and armed police are now part of the standard uniform for some teachers, railway staff, noise pollution officers, gas board workers, TV licence officials and car park attendants.

The makers of "protective" clothing, including bullet-proof vests, are reporting record profits as British firms rush to cash in on one of our few growth industries.

Now the ambulance service is considering buying 20,000 bullet-proof vests, as sociologists warn of an increased risk of violence towards the caring professions. Body armour companies have even supplied a school that handles disturbed and disruptive pupils.

Sales of the vests have quadrupled as, in the past two years, an additional 60,000 suits have been ordered in a market worth £6m a year. Selling at around £300, the suits offer protection from kicks and punches - known as "blunt trauma" in the trade - as well as knife attacks and gun shot.

Security staff at ITN, the BBC and News International (owners of The Sun and The Times) already wear body protection. Last week, it emerged that traffic wardens in Cleveland were to be issued with bullet-proof vests identical to those used by local police. Wardens in several other regions will also get them.

PC Mick Couhig, head of officer safety at Cleveland Police, said: "We accept that traffic wardens are not as likely to be assaulted as police officers. But they do get assaulted in situations dealing with irate motorists."

One Cleveland traffic warden, Mark Holmes, shudders as he recalls an incident when a driver grabbed him by his collar and threatened him. "It's a reassurance that if anyone tried to stick a knife in, you have added protection," he said. "It reflects our violent society."

David Franklin, principal officer on the noise team at Southwark council, south London, has begun to issue body armour to staff sent out to seize stereo equipment from noisy neighbours. "We do get a lot of people with mental health problems wielding knives from balconies," he says. "The armour does reassure staff."

The London Ambulance Service already has a stock of bullet-proof vests and is considering equipping all its members because of the increased risk of gun attacks. "If it's believed firearms may be involved in an incident, we will use body armour," said a spokesman.

Technology used in bullet-proof vests has advanced dramatically, producing light, flexible suits - and, together with the fear of lawsuits from injured workers, has fuelled the surge in demand. Manufacturers are developing armour to protect against hypodermic needles.

Belfast-based Highmark controls some 50 per cent of the market, and has supplied the Belgian police in preparation for the Euro 2000 football tournament.

"Body armour is being used by almost anyone working with the public because employers are increasingly concerned about staff safety," said the firm's technical director, Colin Stanford. "Ambulance staff are particularly at risk because of the growing use of drugs which can make patients unpredictable." Television licensing staff have also been threatened with rifles, he said.

Another key British manufacturer is Meggitt Armour Systems, in Dudley, West Midlands, which has supplied 4,000 vests to the Metropolitan Police.

Professor Peter Waddington, of Reading University's political sociology department, is undertaking research for the Home Office on violent behaviour. "We are a more mobile and anonymous society," he said.

"Security personnel and police have always been at risk, but what is surprising is the increased threat to the caring professions."