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Workplace Safety Tips for Social Workers

Updated on June 12, 2016

Background of Social Work Safety

Guidelines for Social Worker Safety in the Workplace

The number and variety of people to whom social workers provide services and the variety of settings in which these services are provided have contributed to an increasingly unpredictable, and often unsafe, environment for social work practice.
The number and variety of people to whom social workers provide services and the variety of settings in which these services are provided have contributed to an increasingly unpredictable, and often unsafe, environment for social work practice. | Source

Importance of Workplace Safety Policies

Social workers tend to work in the community and are expected to:

  • conduct home visits,
  • attend school meetings,
  • and/or collaborate with other community agencies.

Because of this, a climate of safety should be created in all social work practice environments.

This safe environment reflects the profession’s ethical values and its commitment to providing effective services to the client.

It also decreases levels of burnout and aids with staff retention.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) created guidelines for social worker safety in the workplace and these guidelines are important to follow because reports of violence against social workers are notable.

A national study reported that:

  • 62% of 1,029 NASW members had been subject to psychological aggression in the past year,
  • with 85.5% of them experiencing this aggression at some point in their careers.

Statistics like these show why these guidelines and safety policies are needed.

They can create a level of preparedness to help the social worker deal with problems more effectively.

Also, social workers need to be cognizant of the potential that their personal information can now be accessed on the Internet.

Therefore, many safety precautions must be adopted to underscore the importance of safety issues and to reduce the risk of harm to social workers.

Confidentiality Risks When Conducting On-line Counseling: Safeguard Your Interactions

According to the NASW, a social worker’s primary obligation is to protect their client’s confidentiality.

The social worker must understand that they must also protect their client’s confidential information no matter what medium it is stored on.

The American Telemedicine Association (ATA) states that there are limits to confidentiality in electronic communication and there is a potential for technical failure.

If there was an issue with a device during a session, the social worker should be familiar with the agency’s technology backup plan (e.g. calling client on the telephone and troubleshooting together).

If deficiencies or failures occur then the social worker should be wary of using unencrypted communication platforms (e.g. Skype) as an alternative because they do not allow for providers to protect against breaches.

Therefore, social workers should familiarize themselves with their agency’s safety policies.

Ethical and Professional Considerations in Online Counseling

Overview of online counseling services and their implications for mental health professionals.
Overview of online counseling services and their implications for mental health professionals. | Source

Online therapy poses great risks

Lynn H. Collins, Ph.D.
Lynn H. Collins, Ph.D. | Source

Specific Risks To The Counselor When Conducting On-line Counseling: Tips To Minimize These Risks

Given that online counseling is relatively new, there are many risks to workers when conducting online counseling.

Some risk factors are in terms of malpractice and they should be evaluated early.

For example, informed consent may not be comprehensive and can later confuse the client.

Or, an at-risk client may feel abandoned when they cannot reach a worker, in which case the worker should provide an alternate contact number for the client if they are in need of immediate assistance when they are unavailable.

This could ensure that the client does not search for the worker (e.g. online or in the phone book).

By adhering to safety strategies, risks can be mitigated while still providing quality care to clients.

Best Practices in e-Therapy

JOHN M. GROHOL, PSY.D.
JOHN M. GROHOL, PSY.D. | Source

Online Therapy and the Clinical Social Worker

As clinical social workers venture into the 21st century, they see changes in computer technology occurring at a rapid pace, offering diversity in the way we provide mental health services to patients and their families.
As clinical social workers venture into the 21st century, they see changes in computer technology occurring at a rapid pace, offering diversity in the way we provide mental health services to patients and their families. | Source

How To Respond To A Client Who Wants To “Friend” You On A Social Media Website

Although empirical evidence is nil in regards to validating that social media is truly harmful to clients, a social worker’s interactions should remain professional rather than personal when online.

Therefore, a worker should respectfully decline a client’s friend request on a social media website.

They should set up a professional online identity (e.g. professional website, LinkedIn) that could be used for community outreach and offer that to the client as an alternative.

However, “friend-ing” brings up issues of confidentiality, dual role conflicts, and boundary overstepping.

The most prevalent issues would be privacy and security, in terms of, monitoring what the client said about the worker online and what personal information the client could obtain about the worker online, such as:

  • cell phone number,
  • address,
  • personal email,
  • favorite hang out spots, and/or
  • family photos.

In regards to the professional’s influence on the client, all ethics codes for psychologists, marriage and family therapists, and social workers prohibit the request of testimonials from current clients due to their vulnerability.

Therefore, having a page on the social media website, like Facebook, could be perceived as a request for a testimonial or an endorsement (e.g. the client “likes” the social worker’s page).

Inversely, “friend-ing” a client could destroy the therapeutic relationship if the client views the worker in another role, which is contrary to the way they perceived the worker in sessions.

The online friendship could damage the therapeutic relationship further because the worker may feel responsible for attending to information the client shares online and utilizing it for treatment purposes (e.g. content about death, photos with drugs, etc.).

The worker should remind the client of the boundaries of their relationship and create private social networking of a personal nature for their family and friends.

Powerful Poetry Performance From An At-Risk Social Worker

How To Handle An Agitated Client

If the client becomes agitated it is important to appear calm, stay relaxed, and let them vent.

Meanwhile, the social worker should ensure there’s adequate space between them, avoid continued eye contact, and try to regain control of the situation by commenting in a neutral and specific manner about the obvious.

The worker should emphasize the client’s feelings, remind them that their issue is urgent enough for their attention, and ensure them that they are committed to helping.

Acknowledging the client’s frustration, reflecting their feelings back to them, and genuinely expressing regret for the inconvenience can help deflate the situation.

Validating their concerns also helps to alleviate further need for the client to justify their aggression and empathy should decrease their resistance to the worker.

If the situation is diffused then the discussion should become more civilized.

Afterward, the worker should listen more intently to the client, appear empathetic, and speak in a non-provocative manner.

However, if the client cannot be mollified then the worker would have to call for reinforcements.

Two wrongs will not alleviate the problem; therefore, the worker should try a preventive approach to manage the violence.

The worker should access their surroundings and move toward the exit to notify the supervisor.

If the client’s behavior is completely out of line and the worker is fearful for their safety, then they should not waste time and energy trying to combat the client's anger with their own.

If the situation turns violent, then the worker will be forced to use self-defense.

Violence against Social Workers: Policy Recommendations

Work related violence against social workers is a fact of life. It is pervasive and must be addressed by every school of social work, agency and individual worker. Violence includes physical assault, verbal assault, harassment and threats of assault.
Work related violence against social workers is a fact of life. It is pervasive and must be addressed by every school of social work, agency and individual worker. Violence includes physical assault, verbal assault, harassment and threats of assault. | Source

Protective Steps To Take In The Case Of A Fire, Earthquake, or Other Emergency Situation In The Workplace

In the case of emergency, all furniture in the office should be pre-rearranged to prevent entrapment.

For example, the chairs should be level and positioned to have quickest access to the doorway.

The social worker should keep emergency contacts on speed dial and have pre-arranged method to call for help:

  • keep an old cell phone charged and powered off in their desk because all phones can call 911 for free regardless if they're activated on any specific network.

Lastly, the worker should ensure that proper safety equipment is accessible (e.g. flares, flashlight).

Recognizing, Assessing, and Responding to Suicidal Risk

10 Steps To Reduce Risk
10 Steps To Reduce Risk | Source

How To Assist A Client Who Verbalizes Suicidal and/or Homicidal Ideations

If this situation presented itself, the social worker should assess the client’s potential for violence then use a crisis intervention model with the client because that is more concerned with their present issue rather than developing insight from past events to see what caused it.

The worker should be aware that at this point their client’s usual coping capacity is overwhelmed and the methods they use to cope with stress are no longer working.

Therefore, the worker should focus more on the problems of living for the client rather than their pathology.

The worker should be direct and active while providing hope to the client because a critical event could permanently impair their functioning; these models are important to prevent long-term negative outcomes.

The worker should hope to return their client back to their previous state of functioning or better (i.e., after the resolution of a crisis, individuals return to a state of functioning that maybe either the same as, better, or worse than the original state of equilibrium prior to the crisis).

Guide To Working With Victims

How social workers should work with victims
How social workers should work with victims | Source

Mandated Reporting: How To Handle Suspicions of Abuse

Social workers are held to a higher level of accountability because they have higher ability to assess situations (e.g. child development education).

As mandated reporters, social workers have to be concerned about the family’s overall functioning and their ability to care for their children not necessarily any type of criminal activity involved.

Therefore, workers have an obligation to report any reasonable suspicion of child abuse and neglect (e.g. call CPS).

However, if the case is of a domestic violence nature then social workers ARE NOT required to report in California.

In California, the worker's goal would not be to get the client to "simply" leave their abuser but rather to provide them with much support and information so that they can make an informed decision and motivate themselves to leave.

20 Safety Tips for Home Visits

Safety Tips for Home Visits From a Veteran NYC Social Worker
Safety Tips for Home Visits From a Veteran NYC Social Worker | Source

Factors To Consider When Conducting A Home or Field-Based Visit

When conducting a home visit the social worker should learn about the client’s history beforehand:

  • learn if they've had prior violent encounters,
  • find out if they have a history of mental illness,
  • research the neighborhood they live-in, and
  • find out if there is a gang/cult/militia in the area.

Before leaving to conduct a home visit, the worker should provide their agency with the time and location, and duration of the visit.

Afterward, the worker should dress sensibly, ensure their car is functioning properly, and park close to the home.

The worker should avoid sitting in the kitchen because there are too many possible dangers, such as:

  • boiling water/heavy pans on the stove,
  • too much clutter on the floor/no clear path to exit,
  • knives on the counter, or
  • a dog.

The worker should also utilize technologies (e.g. GPS, cell phone) when going out into the field.

Lastly, the worker should take more early precautions to promote safety (e.g. crisis management, self-defense) prior to visiting the home.

Awesome Safety Tip For Social Workers That Anyone Can Use

Be Aware Of Specific Policies (e.g., local, state, federal) Prior To Engaging With Clients

There are state/legal regulations for social workers in a clinic at the independent practice level.

Social workers should engage in practice only when qualified and competent to do so.

Conclusion

Workplace safety is of increasing concern among individuals who provide services to the public.

Social service providers come in contact with dangerous events on a daily basis in many arenas (e.g. welfare eligibility workers, probation officers, immigration and domestic violence advocates, etc.).

That is why preventative measures and safety policies must be put in place for social workers to ensure their personal safety while on the job.

If a social worker finds their in a situation that presents eminent risk to their safety, it is pertinent that they are prepared in advance on how to help protect themselves, their clients, and the agency from harm.

By following the NASW guidelines, establishing safety policies, providing a safe physical environment, and utilizing various safety approaches, a social worker can de-escalate a situation with the potential for violence and live to serve another day.

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    • tlcs profile image

      Trudy Cooper 10 months ago from Hampshire, UK

      Great hub. I have an interest in workplace health and safety too. Very well researched.

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