Importance of Personal Safety Training for Social Workers
Social work is one of the fastest-growing careers in the U.S. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in Washington, D.C., there were over 715,000 social workers in the country in 2020, with there currently being over 200,000 clinically trained social workers (i.e., those with an MSW) in the country — more than psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychiatric nurses combined. The safety issues one faces in the social work profession largely depend on the specific field they’re in, but the well-being and personal safety concerns of these dedicated professionals should be a top priority across the board.
From field placements all the way through retirement, social worker safety is essential. Because, while work environments differ greatly — whether it be child welfare, school social work, law enforcement, or anything in between — employees and staff members can often find themselves in dangerous situations.
Organizations like the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offer a number of comprehensive safety training guidelines, and most health care, social, and human services providers adhere to diligent safety measures, generally having some sort of safety plan in place. Still, the importance of personal safety training for social workers cannot be overstated, which is why we’ve compiled a list of 10 safety tips for social workers to help ensure their much-needed services can be delivered with relative peace of mind.
Safety Tips for Social Workers
1. Avoid Working Alone
It always helps to have someone by your side. In places like juvenile detention centers, prisons, mental health facilities, shelters, and during in-home visits, workplace violence is not uncommon. Therefore, when it comes to things like risk assessment, de-escalation, and overall control of a situation, the physical presence, second opinion, and professional support of a colleague can be vital. Again, each organization's safety policies are different, but, overall, the safety in numbers principle proves true more often than not — so, whenever possible, make sure there’s someone with you who can help you out.
2. Avoid Visiting Clients in Unpredictable Environments
The level of workplace safety greatly depends on the workplace itself, and social workers can often find themselves in unfamiliar settings. Social services in general — especially sectors like human services (i.e., dealing with the homeless, shelter assistance, crimes and abuse assistance, community integration, etc.) — can be unpredictable when it comes to location. Do your research, familiarize yourself with clients’ neighborhoods and the general layout of any particular place, and be mindful of your surroundings. Try to meet in a public space, or in as a controlled setting as possible, avoid isolated areas, and make sure you can leave easily and, if necessary, request emergency assistance quickly.
3. Know Whom You’re Meeting
Social workers often have to deal with people in dire situations. Violent clients, people with a history of mental illness and/or drug and substance abuse, and those in vulnerable socioeconomic positions can exhibit erratic and at times threatening behavior. So it is vital that you do as much background research as possible. Knowing your client — their history, criminal and medical backgrounds, and current situation and environment — can help assess the risks involved, as well as give you an upper hand when dealing with a potentially dangerous situation.
4. Observing Warning Signs During A Home Visit
In addition to knowing your client’s background, it’s equally vital to be able to assess the situation at any given moment when visiting a client. Examine your surroundings carefully — both well before entering and when inside the home. Look for signs of alcohol and substance abuse, evidence of physical assault or other violent behavior, and pay close attention to things like the client’s body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, non-verbal cues, and changes in mood. While some red flags may be obvious even to the untrained eye, things are not always as they appear on the surface — so be alert, stay calm, and trust your instincts.
5. Never Stand In Front Of The Door When Knocking
Police officers across the country are generally trained to stand to the side when knocking on a door. The same applies to social work practice. While you are there to help, you never really know what situation the person(s) on the other side might be dealing with. Even if you are familiar with the client (i.e., you’ve met them before, and there is no history of violent or erratic behavior) and the environment appears safe, this small but very important extra safety measure can prove invaluable. Furthermore, standing close to the wall on the doorknob side of the door requires that the occupant open the door a significant amount, allowing you a quick assessment of the situation on the other side.
6. Mandated Reporting
Social work safety mostly relies on communication between clients, colleagues, and, when necessary, the proper authorities. So if you suspect, witness, and/or experience abuse, maltreatment, neglect, client violence, or misconduct of any kind — you need to report it. Mandatory reporting laws were adopted in the United States during the mid-1960s to ensure child welfare. Today, social workers are mandated reporters of child abuse and neglect in all fifty states, and, while the specifics of what constitutes abuse differ from state to state, the laws largely apply to the elderly and vulnerable adults as well. Sociaworker.com suggests that, “as mandated reporters and ethical professionals, social workers have a professional obligation to seek out information to understand their legal requirement to report.” A timely filed report can prove critical not only for your safety and well-being but for your clients and colleagues as well.
7. Keep Situation In Your Control
Self-control is key to keeping any given situation under control. Be aware of your environment, pay attention to warning signs and the behavior of your client, practice patience and restraint, and assess the risk. Your body language, tone of voice, and verbal communication are essential when dealing with unpredictable or violent clients. The AER technique (Acknowledge, Empathize, Reassure), is a good tested method to defuse a potentially dangerous situation. Have your cell phone close at hand (and fully charged), remain calm and receptive, and also know when to walk away.
8. Be Alert And Aware Of Situations
Social work requires a high level of awareness. Work environments, again, differ greatly, but no matter what setting you find yourself in, it’s important to be mindful and not let your guard down. The people you meet (and the environments they’re in), for one reason or another, are not always very welcoming. Clients are often dealing with a crisis and a situation can sometimes escalate quickly and without warning. Take all the necessary precautions, use the tools you’ve learned, stay calm, assess the risk, and trust your intuition. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
9. Signal A Co-Worker Or Supervisor
Whether you're working alone or with colleagues, always make sure that you can always quickly and easily call for assistance using a device such as a wireless panic button. No matter the environment — detention centers, hospitals, shelters, in-home visits, etc. — try to keep your colleagues (or an exit) in view and within reach and have your phone on your person at all times. There are also a number of non-verbal cues one can use, and, depending on the specific field, most employers will train you on these. Assess the situation, be diligent, and know when to ask for help.
10. Take A Self-Defense Class
And, finally, this may be one of the most important safety tips for social workers in any field — because knowing how to defend yourself if a situation does escalate is crucial. There are countless options for self-defense classes and training (both in person and online) that you can enroll in to help guarantee that you are ready to deal with any given situation. Along with the peace of mind and awareness it offers, knowing various ways to physically protect oneself greatly increases the chances of successfully de-escalating and controlling a potentially dangerous situation.