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Prioritizing Social Worker Safety — You Can, and You Should
By Penelope Doherty
September 13, 2019

You are in the social work profession for a reason—because you care deeply about the
well-being and safety of your clients. But are you thinking enough about your own safety?

By all accounts, work-related violence is on the rise—and social workers and health care workers bear the brunt of it. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that health care and social service professionals experienced 69% of all workplace violence injuries caused by persons in 2016, and they are five times more likely to sustain a workplace violence injury than the average worker.

Trends show that the threats are increasing; Bureau of Labor Statistics data show workplace violence injury rates for health care and social service professionals increased by 63% between 2006 and 2016. Due to underreporting, actual injury rates are recognized to be higher.

Threats are becoming bolder—visits to your residence, texts about your kids, threats to sue you or get you fired. And if that’s not enough, staff in the field face dangers from other sources as well: dogs, livestock, houses and yards in disrepair, hazardous materials, and random violence as they move from place to place.

Today’s mobile social workers are targeted for a variety of reasons. Many carry expensive equipment. Some travel on public transportation. Others drive personal cars into unfamiliar neighborhoods; they can easily be the target of muggings or carjackings. Social workers, you can take control of your safety—and managers, you can help them. Do you have a plan or checklist for thinking ahead?

It’s not only about knowing what to do; it’s about doing it. Try to make a habit of the following best practices.

• Conduct regular environmental checks. This starts with looking ahead and being aware of your surroundings. Know where you’re going, and understand your options should things go awry.

• Know that you have permission to leave. If your instincts are flaring up, get out. Retreat to a safe distance and reassess. Call for reinforcements, come back another day, whatever—but don’t stay in a situation if your gut says to get out.

• Don’t wear earbuds on public transport. It makes you vulnerable. This also applies to working on your device—don’t sit in your car and do it; don’t lose yourself in work or Game of Thrones on the subway. It’s just too easy for someone to approach you while you are distracted.

• Minimize your presence on social media. Specifically, don’t post photos of your children, or information that reveals your neighborhood, your routines, or your children’s schools.

• Report aggressive or unsettling behavior. Talk it through with your supervisor, and if their guidance doesn’t seem adequate, you may choose to discuss this with your manager's supervisor to achieve a solution to a problem you are facing or situation that needs addressing. This is about your safety.

• Practice de-escalation. Role-play with colleagues, or better yet, ask for training at a staff meeting. And never ask an aggressor, “Was that a threat?” If you have to ask, it’s too late, and you’ll only set up a power struggle that no one will win. Try to de-escalate, and then get out.

• Communicate your plans. Do people know where you are—and when to expect you back? Does your agency or employer have a system? Think about how people will know if you’re in trouble.

• Know how to call for help and talk to law enforcement. Start with the basics of what’s happening, not the case or the reason you’re there. Then listen to them and answer the dispatcher’s questions. Better yet, talk to your manager about modern lone worker safety tools that can immediately connect you to law enforcement without having to unlock your phone.

Most importantly, remember to always prioritize your safety—you can’t help a client if you’re injured or incapacitated.

Managerial Responsibility
Managers want to know if a member of their staff has encountered a serious incident. When I worked at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), we had a rule: If someone on your team has been locked in, blocked in, chased, or attacked— talk it through with your manager, and if their guidance doesn’t seem adequate, you may again, choose to
discuss the matter with your manager's supervisor. And have a plan to provide support to that traumatized worker. It doesn’t have to be elaborate (your agency probably already has something in place), but be sure to review it. Consider the following points:

• Is your staff sending mixed messages? Are your supervisors sending a message that staff safety is a priority, and staffers have permission to get out of an unsettling situation? Or are they subconsciously saying, “Be safe, but not if it means we miss the deadline?”

• Do you have a lone worker safety tool? If you don’t, consider some kind of check-in system, at the very least. At Texas DFPS, after two very serious attacks on caseworkers, we realized we had to equip staff with a way to call for help. The “check-in” system simply left too much to chance. So we went looking for a tool with three items: 1) the ability to send a distress signal through a locked phone, without having to push buttons or wait; 2) professional monitoring staff to contact police on our behalf, rather than relying on a personal contact list; and 3) a way to keep track of workers besides just GPS, because GPS can’t read apartment numbers and is often imprecise. We found the tool we needed, and thousands of staff members in Texas now carry SafeSignal for emergencies. It’s also used by other agencies in Arizona, New Jersey, Florida, Kansas, New Mexico, West Virginia, Vermont, and New York City.

• Where do case workers report a threat or attack? Staffers need to know what to do, and you need to know what’s going on.

• What happens next? Does the staff person at risk or vulnerable need counseling? And what is the plan for the next visit? Health care and social services agencies can rarely discontinue a case because of threats or dangers. So what will we add to the plan to ensure the next visit is safe?

In these situations, it’s critically important that staff and management work together to minimize risk, mitigate damage, and maximize resources for staff recovery from that incident. It’s not rocket science, but it does take thoughtful consideration.

— Penelope Doherty was program development expert at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services for more than 15 years, and developed that agency’s worker safety support initiative after two caseworkers were severely injured at home visits. She now assists other groups with lone workers to establish or enhance safety support processes.