As a case manager, you usually see people when they’re down on their luck or going through an unpleasant situation or crisis. People aren’t always on their best behavior in those situations, which could lead to violence or threats aimed at you, even when you’re only trying to help. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2000, the last year statistics were available, 48 percent of assaults that were not fatal occurred in health care and social service settings.
Many people enter the social services profession with the understanding that threats, violence and unsafe working conditions are part and parcel of the job-- a big reason the Occupational and Safety Health Administration suggests that the incidences of violence are really underreported. You may even be under the impression that your boss thinks you’re not doing your job if you complain about being threatened, when in fact stricter workplace guidelines and agency policies can reduce your exposure to harm.
When you’re working with underprivileged populations, drug and alcohol abusers and other people going through social and economic problems, you’re never going to be able to completely eliminate unsafe work environments. But making sure that all the employees in your agency are aware of potential problems and how they can be avoided or handled when they occur is a vital first step in protecting you and your co-workers. You can start by including a risk assessment in every client file and creating policies and guidelines to deal with risky clients should the need arise.
You and your agency can take preventive action to reduce the number of incidences you have to experience. Learn how to diffuse angry outburst with verbal de-escalation techniques. Install panic buttons or alarms at case managers' desks. Create a safe distance between you and your clients when you are in an office. Establish polices that require two people to make house calls in risky neighborhoods. Arrange your offices so that clients have little access to back office areas without being accompanied by a staff member. Build a communication system among your staff so you can tell each other when a client seems to be exhibiting risky behavior. Install metal detectors if you’re worried about guns or other weapons.
You don’t have to work in a facility that doesn’t have your back. Zero-tolerance policies are highly recommended by OSHA and the National Association of Social Workers. Demand that your reports be taken seriously and that the agency or company you work for tracks threats and risks. Find out the emergency procedures developed by your employer before you even take a job or at least on your first day at work. It’s not OK for clients to threaten you. Violence and unsafe work environments are not acceptable, no matter how volatile your client base is.
Linda Ray is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years reporting experience. She's covered business for newspapers and magazines, including the "Greenville News," "Success Magazine" and "American City Business Journals." Ray holds a journalism degree and teaches writing, career development and an FDIC course called "Money Smart."