While everyone who leaves the house to go to work takes the risk of encountering violence, some workers take more risks than others. As a social worker or outreach worker, you often deal with people who are not at their best and may be under a lot of stress. To deal with the sometimes volatile situations you might come up against during the day, you need to learn how to read situations and take precautions to keep yourself safe.
A number of risk factors come into play that affect your work and the relationships you deal with. For example, police often rely on hospitals to hold violent, acutely disturbed individuals that you end up doing intake for without sufficient police protection. The long waits in emergency and social service agencies can cause clients, patients and family members to become frustrated and turn around and take it out on you. Then there is the problem of an increasing number of mentally ill patients being released into the community without sufficient follow-up care -- often just you and your clipboard.
The reduction of risks and the development of rules to protect you begin at your agency. Your employer should have a workplace violence protection program established that includes guidelines such as a zero-tolerance policy for any verbal or nonverbal threats and any acts of violence. You shouldn’t have to make excuses for reporting threats or worry about reprisals or getting in trouble. Instead, your employer should encourage you to report such incidents promptly, with swift measures in place to correct any problems, like refusing service to rowdy or uncooperative clients or calling the police when clients refuse to follow your rules of conduct.
As an outreach worker, you’ll be out on the streets facing a number of risks. You’ll encounter gun crime, prostitution, fights and drug activity on a regular basis. On top of that, you’re going to be seen as an outsider by those you’re trying to help. Different people on the street have different agendas and reasons for being there and the atmosphere on the street can be unpredictable. You’ll need to develop keen instincts about when you should turn around and leave and when you can safely approach your clients.
The biggest safety tip you can follow is to never work alone, especially when you head into rough neighborhoods. It’s best to work with one or even two other people, using a buddy-system approach. Not only does the buddy system help to keep you safe physically, but it also allows for some accountability so that others won’t be able to bring up false allegations against you. Introduce yourself to the people in the neighborhoods where you work so people can get to know you and your intentions. Don’t dress in a way that makes you stand out too much, and don’t carry a lot of personal items. If you remain consistent and trustworthy in your dealings with the neighborhood, the people you are trying to help will get to know you and will feel more comfortable coming to you for help.
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."