Understanding Personal Safety for Social Workers

Young male social worker shakes hand of elderly man before entering on a home visit.
Social workers intervene in the lives of clients at pivotal moments of change or crisis. While the goal of social work is to improve those moments and maintain the well-being of all parties involved, violence towards social workers can occur in agencies and in the field. Though most clients who social workers engage with will never become violent, it’s important to understand the risk associated with the profession and prepare for the unexpected.

The Importance of Personal Safety for Social Workers

The importance of personal safety for social workers can’t be overstated. The work is often unpredictable and requires a great deal of preparation and quick thinking to navigate. In fact, the issue of safety in the field is prevalent enough that bills to enhance social worker safety have been introduced to the U.S. Congress three times. Unfortunately, none of those bills have passed. Still, several states have adopted guidelines, and professional organizations provide a lot of insight into how social workers and agencies can protect themselves from the threat of physical or emotional abuse.

The National Association of Social Work (NASW) stated, “The goal of organizations that employ social workers should be to create a ” To manage the risk involved with social work the NASW has recommended 11 standards for social work safety. Here are a few of those standards:

  • Organizational culture of safety and security: Providing an environment for social workers where they are free from violence or threats of violence.
  • Prevention: Analyzing past incidences and acting to avoid their reoccurrence.
  • Risk assessment for field visits: Conducting risk assessments before each field visit, which include becoming familiar with the area and any past incidents.
  • Comprehensive reporting practices: Communicating about whereabouts and changes of plans to a supervisor or coworker, including addresses and arrival and departure times.
  • Post-incidence reporting and response: Developing policies that are activated in a timely manner after a violent or abusive incident takes place.

If social workers encounter violence or unsafe environments, their work will be affected indefinitely by the trauma or physical toll the incidents cause. Violence against social workers can also influence industry retention overall. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of social workers is projected to grow 16 percent from 2016 to 2026 with much of that growth being in health care and mental health. Thus, creating measures that recruit and retain social workers is pivotal to meet the needs of communities and avoid social worker shortages.

Home Visit Safety for Social Workers

If social workers do experience danger, it’s more likely to be in the field than in an agency. Home visit safety for social workers demands attention because incidents can have dire consequences. In February of 2018, a Chicago social worker died as a result of injuries sustained during an attack when she was attempting to remove a two-year-old boy from the custody of his abusive father. This is the most extreme example of what violence toward social workers can result in during a home visit, but it remains a sobering example of why safety measures are imperative.

The Center for States, a group committed to public child welfare social work organizations and professionals, has pointed out that many factors can cause an intervention or visit to escalate to violence, including potentially unsafe work environments during home visits, visits to dangerous neighborhoods, and lack of organizational support to ensure worker safety.

How do social workers remain safe during home visits and family interventions? Consider the standards set forth by the NASW above. While all risk can’t be avoided, following some simple safety tips and looking for warning signs can mean the difference between life and death.

Reducing the Risk of Violence Before and During a Home Visit

Creating safety action plans using the guidelines of the NASW and other organizations is a great way to start. The first step is conducting safety assessments before the home visit. These assessments should include learning about the history of the clients and families and considering the neighborhoods where the home visits will take place.

Next, all social workers should ensure their cars have enough gas, their phone is properly charged, and GPS is enabled along with any technology their agencies use for safety. If there is inclement weather, move the home visit to another time if possible to avoid being stranded. Supervisors or coworkers should have the address of where social workers are heading and when they’re expected to return. Social workers create an incredible safety net by being aware of each other’s whereabouts and following up if there is a concern.

These steps before a home visit ensure that a social worker is prepared to handle unexpected incidents and has the support of his or her organization.

Observing Warning Signs During a Home Visit

Social workers should drive by the home they’re visiting before stopping to look for any alarming activity. When first arriving at the residence, they must note any disturbances or noises heard within the residence before knocking.

Upon greeting clients, social workers should immediately show their badges, preferably before entering, and ask who else is present at the time. Social workers must recognize how clients respond to their presence. The California Department of Social Services recommends viewing all rooms in homes if possible to check for any additional people or safety concerns. All social workers should observe environmental factors, keeping eyes open for any possible weapons or disturbances.

While it’s important to remain calm and complete the job at hand, all social workers must practice vigilance throughout all home visits. If at any time a social worker feels unsafe in the home, he or she should immediately leave the situation or contact a supervisor or colleague.

How to Take Action After an Altercation

Per the NASW, “Employers of social workers have an obligation to develop policies and protocols following a violent or abusive incident to seek to ameliorate the current victim’s condition and to avoid future incidents.” No matter how minor an altercation, each social worker should promptly file an incident report to ensure that the proper steps are taken to prevent future occurrences.

Following the NASW’s recommendations, an employer should debrief any witnesses or staff involved, offer medical or legal assistance as necessary, and assist the social worker with any emotional hardships or damage to his or her property.

Then, the agency should properly address the situation and what protocols and safety measures can be put into place to help prevent similar incidents in the future. Reporting even the smallest altercations and addressing them in a timely manner will ensure that the personal safety of social workers continually improves.

Pursuing a Career in Social Work

Properly prepared social work professionals address any unexpected incidents and make the future even brighter for all social workers. Consider Brescia University’s online bachelor’s degree in social work or further your social work knowledge with the MSW online degree to prepare yourself to address complex issues within the social work field and make positive change in your community. Brescia University offers five start dates a year, and both degrees are obtainable without ever setting foot on campus.