Social workers help people overcome personal challenges, from homelessness and poverty to domestic violence, behavioral issues in children, and beyond. Although the career can be deeply rewarding, social workers can be at risk of physical and emotional violence, threats, and verbal abuse in their work.
Knowing the potential risks involved in the profession is essential. Equally important is an understanding of the laws and regulations designed to protect social workers. For example, a key objective of the Protecting Social Workers and Health Professionals from Workplace Violence Act of 2019 is to fund safer workplace measures for social workers. Promoting social worker safety in the workplace plays a crucial role in attracting individuals to a rewarding career that helps society’s most vulnerable.
The Importance of Personal Safety Training for Social Workers
Social workers make difficult decisions every day, such as denying benefits that may affect a client’s financial well-being. This can lead to clients retaliating with physical violence or verbal abuse. An organization that makes personal safety training a key part of social work training can help social workers prevent and address these and similar challenges. The following sections contain safety tips for social workers.
Social workers receive training to help them handle emotionally charged situations. However, stress can take a serious toll. For example, it can lead child protection workers to experience an increased risk of compassion fatigue, burnout, and secondary traumatic stress episodes that can be akin to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Problem- and emotion-focused coping strategies are significant predictors of resilience, according to a study in the journal International Social Work. Problem-focused coping strategies help alleviate stressors, while emotion-focused coping strategies help individuals manage their emotions. The study found that education programs can help social workers manage stress more effectively using these coping skills.
Social Worker Safety Policies and Training
Agencies and organizations that hire social workers can implement policies, procedures, and systems to promote safety. For example, agencies can provide easy access to alarm systems that alert colleagues of a safety risk. Other strategies include requiring open meeting spaces visible to more than one person in the office, and restricting access to objects that can be used as weapons.
In addition to providing safe environments for social workers, workplace safety training adds another layer of protection for social workers. Personal safety training helps social workers understand and prepare for a variety of dangerous scenarios that may be likely or possible.
Training programs can cover communication-related concepts, such as speaking calmly with a clear and direct approach. Often, clients who become violent are angry at the situation, not at the social worker, and social workers who react without becoming defensive are more likely to navigate a difficult encounter successfully. Training may emphasize the positive impact of nuanced communication. For example, telling a client to calm down may trigger a negative response, so a calm demeanor is more likely to de-escalate a situation.
Risk assessment is another critical part of social work training. For example, situational awareness can include assessing a client’s history, including their interactions with previous social workers. Other areas covered in training may consist of engaging in crisis communication, identifying rage and triggers, and treating violent clients.
Social Work Situations that Require Training
Social workers must remain levelheaded even in high-stress encounters to minimize conflict. However, sometimes difficult circumstances can lead to physical acts of violence against a social worker. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) reports that people in social work and related occupations are “nearly five times as likely to suffer a serious workplace violence injury than workers in other sectors.”
Is social work dangerous? It can be, but proper training can help find solutions. Consider examples of potentially hazardous scenarios.
Removing a Child from an Unsafe Environment
Social workers may be involved in cases of physical and mental abuse, neglect, or mistreatment of children. After conducting investigations and interviews with family members, they must assess whether a home environment endangers a child’s health and welfare. If an environment is determined to be unsafe, a social worker may recommend that a child be separated from the family. Parents may react with violence, insults, or threats.
Social workers who work with children and families can experience a higher rate of violence than those in other fields. Child welfare caseworkers must make difficult decisions about children’s safety, potentially putting themselves at risk. For example, parents with a history of domestic abuse may react violently to a social worker’s assessment. Abuse can also come from teenagers with a history of violence, putting social workers at risk of possible physical, psychological, and emotional harm.
Visiting Clients in Risky Environments
Vulnerability driven by socioeconomic concerns can create potentially dangerous situations for social workers. For example, social workers may need to visit clients alone in neighborhoods with crime. Social workers may also work in environments such as prisons and juvenile detention facilities, where they can be exposed to violence.
Unfortunately, these environments can increase the risk of social workers experiencing violence. Social workers could face physical assault or being attacked with a weapon. Additional acts of possible violence may include attempted assault, property damage, verbal abuse, and threats.
Working with Individuals with Mental Illness
Although most people with mental health issues are nonviolent, some may react to what they see as a social worker’s interference with physical threats or verbal abuse.
Keeping People Healthy
A key part of a social worker’s responsibility is to help support people with these health issues. From helping individuals navigate the complex health care system, to providing lifesaving information during outbreaks such as the COVID-19 pandemic, social workers regularly interact with clients. In their efforts to help keep people safe, social workers may at times place themselves in danger of contracting transmittable diseases.
Social Work Safety
The laws that protect social workers from various types of violence, combined with pre-visit planning and strategies to de-escalate dangerous situations, can help social workers remain safe.
Social workers should inform supervisors before meeting with clients. It may be necessary to alert security or law enforcement professionals for clients known for their unpredictability and violent behavior. Additional pre-visit plans include:
- Informing clients of your arrival time and being specific about the purpose of your visit so they aren’t surprised or startled.
- Getting to know the neighborhood of the home you plan to visit. Before arriving at your appointment, use Google Maps to familiarize yourself with the area, including the nearest police station.
- Providing clear information about your whereabouts to your employer. Share details about whom you’ll be visiting, specifying the time and the planned length of your visit.
- Being prepared with code words or phrases that alert your employer and colleagues to an emergency or a dangerous situation.
- Using a mobile phone app such as Bsafe, which can activate an SOS alert via voice or touch, including your location and live GPS tracking.
Even with the best-conceived plans, a sudden conflict may arise. Strategies for deescalating stressful, confrontational, or violent scenarios may not control others’ reactions, but can lead to a peaceful resolution.
Social workers are focused on empowering individuals to overcome some of life’s biggest challenges. With patience, a calm demeanor, active listening, and compassion, social workers can help clients respond mindfully to a crisis. Below are examples of strategies that can be used to de-escalate tense encounters.
- Stay calm and listen actively. Sometimes clients just need to be reminded that social workers are there to help.
- Demonstrate empathy and be nonjudgmental. Clients who are under immense pressure and may be dealing with traumatic experiences may not always respond reasonably. Nonetheless, instead of pointing out flaws in their reactions, understand where they’re coming from rather than judging them, and show grace under pressure.
- Keep a safe distance. In high-pressure situations, the space between two people at odds gets smaller. By creating space, you not only protect yourself but help avoid an escalation.
- Be aware of body language. Kind and empathetic words can be useful in de-escalating a situation. By matching your thoughtful words with your reassuring voice, body language, and facial expressions, you may help diffuse defensiveness.
Social Worker Home Visit Safety Strategies
Social workers should approach adults and children differently. Building rapport is vital to establishing trust with parents. The strategies for establishing rapport include the following:
- Approaching adults with an open mind
- Finding out what’s important to adults
- Listening to an adult’s explanation of the situation without correcting them or being argumentative
- Asking open-ended questions that allow adults to offer their perspectives
The social work process can be improved by using straightforward communication, setting clear visitation expectations, and describing parents’ role in the family dynamic. Social workers must also provide parents with a sense of control by inviting them to participate in planning and scheduling.
Building trust is also at the heart of a social worker’s approach with children, especially those who have faced violence, abuse, or neglect in the home. Children experiencing adversity, such as abusive or incarcerated parents or families struggling with substance abuse, may have feelings of anger, shame, and trauma. Social workers must validate children’s emotions and encourage them to share their feelings in an open, honest environment, offering:
- Clear and honest interactions
- Opportunities to share concerns and wishes
- Clear options and choices, which reduce anxiety and opposition when children are asked questions
Another vital aspect of social worker home visit safety strategies is cultural competence. Successful social workers are committed to cultural understanding and respecting the ethnic diversity of their clients. This understanding helps social workers earn their clients’ trust, resulting in improved outcomes.
Consider additional safety strategies and techniques when visiting a client at home.
Dress Appropriately with Minimal Jewelry
Wearing proper attire facilitates ease of movement, and minimal jewelry makes social workers less of a potential target. Placing valuables in a car’s trunk before driving to a client’s home means not attracting attention.
Be Mindful of Pets
Social workers should call ahead of an appointment to check if a family has pets. If a social worker is allergic, alternative plans can be made. In some homes, pets can also be victims of violence, abuse, or neglect, increasing the chances that they can be dangerous.
Keep a First-Aid Kit in Your Car
A first-aid kit can be useful if a social worker is physically harmed during a visit. In the case of a bruise, cut, or injury, this handy health resource can help a social worker care for themselves and avoid infection or further injury.
Trust Instincts When Sensing Danger
Social workers should be mindful of their surroundings, familiarize themselves with clients’ neighborhoods, be sensitive to warning signs, and trust their instincts.
Ask Permission to Hold or Handle a Child
Parents often feel vulnerable during visits and feeling a lack of control may make them aggressive toward a social worker. A social worker should never assume that parents are OK with others holding a child but should always ask permission.
Keep Personal Information Private During a Home Visit
Part of building rapport includes sharing information that makes others feel comfortable, but it’s never a good idea for a social worker to share personal information that can put them and their loved ones at risk. Social workers should ensure their personal information is kept private.
Why Safety Training Matters
Throughout the U.S., communities, especially in rural areas and inner cities, lack access to critical social services and health resources. Social workers work in schools, hospitals, prisons, government agencies, and nonprofits to help individuals, families, and communities overcome adversity.
While social work is rewarding, it can be a potentially dangerous profession. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that of the 20,870 workers who experienced traumatic workplace violence in 2019, 70% of them worked in health care and social assistance roles. Social worker safety is worth considering when pursuing a career in the field.
Because of this, training social workers to protect themselves in intense and potentially dangerous situations is crucial. Doing so can not only reduce the threat of physical violence but it can also safeguard social workers from the threat of secondary trauma and burnout.
Learn More About Social Work Safety
For social workers, knowing how to recognize danger and diffuse situations before they escalate is a critical part of the profession. This expertise can not only keep them out of harm’s way but it can enable them to focus on using their skills to make a difference in the lives of those who need help. This can make the role of a social worker an immensely satisfying career, despite its occasional risks.
Ohio University’s online Master of Social Work program prepares graduates to understand how social needs and policies affect populations. It also prepares them with a comprehensive awareness of the impact of social work values and ethics. Graduates receive real-life experience in helping individuals from rural and marginalized communities overcome life’s biggest challenges.
Learn more about how Ohio University can help you pursue a meaningful career as a social worker.