How to keep yourself safe in Social Work
It’s a hard fact of our profession that we face verbal abuse, intimidation and threatening behaviour on a daily basis. Because it is our job to support people, regardless of their backgrounds, we regularly find ourselves face-to-face with those who are capable of causing great harm to other human beings.
The frequency with which we face abuse in our line of duty can sadly numb us to the risks we face, especially when we always try to see the best in other people and look to explain the drivers behind their dangerous behaviour. While attacks are uncommon, there are many Social Workers out there who have been assaulted, stabbed, held-hostage and even murdered while simply doing their jobs.
Here are some tips for remaining vigilant, spotting danger and keeping safe in Social Work.
Risk assess all of the people you support
There are contributing factors that make people more likely to harm others. To help reduce the risk you face and keep you safe in Social Work, look through all past assessments and liaise with other agencies (especially Police and health services) to draw up a risk assessment on people you’re supporting. Some of the risk factors to look out for include:
- A criminal record for violent acts
- Use of drugs or alcohol
- Poor impulse control
- High frustration levels
- Anger management issues
- Domestic violence
- Diagnosed personality disorders
- Military training
- A known owner or user of weapons
- A lack of respect for authority
- Person feeling like they have ‘nothing to lose’
Plan your visits and meetings in advance
Contemporary Social Work can be so busy that we hardly have time to prepare for visits and meetings, with us often rushing between them to make sure everything is done within timescales. Such enforced practice not only reduces the quality of our work, but also makes us far more susceptible to risk as we have no time to mentally prepare for what we may be about to face. To reduce the threat level, try working through the following checklist before visits and meetings:
- Where possible, schedule visits in advance (although some unannounced visits are necessary when assessing homes in a more natural manner)
- Use your risk assessment to determine whether it is safe to perform a lone visit or if you need to take a colleague with you
- If colleagues are unavailable to join you on a risky visit, try to schedule visits at the same time as other agencies are attending
- Ask for information from other agencies about known associates who may pose a risk if in the home when you are visiting
- Try to undertake visits in daylight hours
- Know what triggers to avoid during the visit and what risk factors (such as being under the influence) may heighten the threat level
- Have a look around the area before entering the home or meeting room. Use this to plan your escape route and to avoid dead ends
- Always write on your office board and in your electronic diary where you are going and how long you expect to be
- Arrange for a colleague to call if you are not back in time
- Have a ‘safe word’ agreed with your team members that you can use to signal you are in danger. This may be something like ‘is there anything in the back of the diary for me?’ that you can use when calling back to the office when in the middle of a dangerous situation
- In meetings, ask the building caretaker for fire exits and emergency procedures prior to commencing. You can also ask for the details of any dangerous situations from the past and what lessons were learned
During visits and meetings
If you’ve followed the above advice by risk assessing the people you’re supporting and planning your contacts in advance, you should be prepared for any dangers you’re about to face. As well as using this information to minimise danger, you should take the following actions during your visits and meetings to help keep you safe in Social Work:
- Where possible, position yourself next to the exit. Do not have anyone else between you and an exit route
- Don’t allow the door to be locked behind you
- If the person you are working with has an anti-social or criminal peer network, be wary of any new figures being present at meetings or visits. Consider calling the meeting/visit to an end or asking the new person to leave (until a risk assessment is done) if you are confident doing so
- Have your mobile phone on you at all times and your local emergency services number on speed dial
- Stay out of kitchens and bedrooms wherever possible. Kitchens have the most dangerous objects in the home and bedrooms are most commonly used to hide weapons and contraband.
- Trust your gut instinct. If anything seems unusual or out of the ordinary, make your excuses and leave.
Because I have created this guide for ease of sharing and reading, it is a basic starter to keeping safe in Social Work. I know that we can often become desensitised to risk and our jobs are so busy we don’t have the time to think about ourselves, but please try and remember these three basic steps to staying safe:
Risk assess your clients > Plan visits and meetings > Stay alert
Social Work is a great career, but it is not worth dying for and you deserve to be safe while carrying out your duties. Look after yourselves and take care.