Social workers help people overcome personal challenges, from homelessness and poverty to domestic violence and children’s behavioral issues. 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 aim 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 critical role in attracting individuals to be part of a rewarding career that helps society’s most vulnerable.
Why Is Social Work a Potentially Dangerous Profession?
Social workers must remain levelheaded even in high-stress encounters, such as emotionally charged situations, 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 social workers 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. 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 upon hearing that decision.
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.
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 at-risk neighborhoods. Social workers may also work in environments such as prisons and juvenile detention facilities where they can be exposed to violence.
Keeping People Healthy
A key part of a social worker’s responsibility is to support people with their health care issues. From helping individuals navigate the complex health system to providing lifesaving information during outbreaks such as the COVID-19 pandemic, social workers regularly interact face-to-face with clients. In their efforts to help keep people safe, social workers may place themselves in danger of contracting transmittable diseases.
What Types of Violence Do Social Workers Encounter?
Social workers may face physical assault, including getting kicked, punched, or being attacked with a weapon. Additional acts of violence endangering social workers’ safety include attempted assault, property damage, and threats. Verbal abuse may include being made fun of, getting cursed at, or receiving relentless insults.
Social workers working with children and families can experience a higher rate of violence than those in other fields. Child welfare caseworkers have to make difficult decisions about children’s safety, potentially putting them 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 being hurt physically, psychologically, and emotionally.
Safety Tips for Social Workers
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’ safety.
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 history. Additional pre-visit plans include the following:
- Ensure that clients know your arrival time and be specific about the purpose of your visit to prevent them from being surprised or startled.
- Get 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 locating the nearest police station.
- Provide clear information to your employer about your whereabouts. Share details about who you’ll be visiting, specifying the time and the planned length of your visit.
- Be prepared with code words or phrases that alert your employer and colleagues to an emergency or a dangerous situation.
- Use a mobile phone app such as BSafe that by touch or voice activates an SOS alert, including your location and live GPS tracking.
Even with the best-conceived plans, a sudden conflict may arise. Strategies for de-escalating 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 also help clients respond to a crisis mindfully. Below are examples of strategies that can be used to de-escalate tense encounters with clients:
- 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 under immense pressure and with traumatic experiences may not always respond reasonably. Nonetheless, instead of pointing out flaws in their reactions, understand where they come from rather than judging them, and show grace under pressure.
- Keep a safe distance. In a high-pressure situation, the space between two people at odds gets smaller. By creating space, you not only protect yourself but also improve the chances of avoiding an escalation.
- Be aware of body language. Kind and empathetic words can be useful in de-escalating a situation. By matching your words’ thoughtfulness with your voice, body language, and facial expressions, you help diffuse defensiveness.
The Importance of Personal Safety Training for Social Workers
Social workers make difficult decisions, such as denying benefits that may impact a client’s financial well-being. This can lead to physical acts of violence or verbal abuse against them. Personal safety training for social workers can help social workers prevent and address the challenges. The following sections contain examples of safety tips for social workers.
Social workers receive training to help them handle emotionally charged situations. However, stress can take a serious toll. According to a study in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect, the consequences for child protection workers can be psychological, manifested as fear or nightmares; organizational, causing low motivation or sick leave; and clinical, which can result in avoidance and emotional detachment from clients.
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 other 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 to social worker safety. Personal safety training helps social workers understand and prepare for dangerous scenarios.
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 the social workers, and social workers who react without becoming defensive are more likely to successfully navigate an encounter. Training may emphasize that telling a client to calm down may trigger a negative response, so a calm demeanor is more likely to successfully de-escalate a situation.
Risk assessment is another critical part of safety training. For example, situational awareness can include assessing a client’s history, including 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 Worker Home Visit Safety Strategies
Social workers should approach adults and children differently. Rapport building 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 in which adults are allowed to offer their perspectives
Straightforward communication, setting visitation expectations, and describing their role in the family dynamic help clarify the process’s ambiguities. 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 to 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 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 the 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 that their personal information is kept private.
Carefully Approaching Important Situations
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 is potentially dangerous. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that of the 20,790 workers who experienced traumatic workplace violence in 2018, 73% of them worked in health care and social assistance roles. Social worker safety is worth considering when pursuing a career in the field.
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.