It is amazing how little effort has been expended by some agencies to train field workers how to survive violent encounters with clients they encounter in the field. Proper training, planning and preparation can prevent many violent incidents from occurring and can enhance their ability to survive violent encounters. Depending on luck is a poor substitute for taking constructive measures to prevent a violent encounter. The current state of knowledge of safety procedures makes your ability to stay safe in the field greater than ever. Yet more effort is likely to have gone into the counseling and support that a worker receives after an assault than that worker or that worker’s agency devoted to worker safety before the assault.
When we first started doing safety training for social workers and public health nurses in 1996 there were concerns from the field administrators the material being presented might incite fear in the workers, resulting in them never leaving their office. One of the first things that we do in our sessions is to ask the attendees to take a moment to write down past work situations where they found themselves in dangerous or violent situations. Many of them come up with personal accounts of risk and injury. In other words, these people have already experienced the dangers of the job. They are attending classes like ours because they wanted strategies and techniques that allow them to overcome the fears and anxieties that they already have experienced on the job so that they can continue to do those valuable jobs.
You can’t make yourself safe unless you have a true appreciation of the risks involved. Only then can you adequately prepare for them. The best defense for any field worker is to be prepared before violence happens. This often makes it possible for you to avoid potential violence altogether, and can substantially reduce the number of incidents that escalate to the point of violence. The old adage ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ certainly applies here.
Your body will often react to impending danger before you become consciously aware of it. When suddenly confronted with violence, your body will automatically revert to an instinctive “fear-fight-flight mode.” It has been our experience that workers often dismiss the physiological symptoms they are having when they begin to feel unsafe and attempt to continue their interview or assessment. They fail to trust their instincts. If you become aware that you are experiencing these symptoms you should begin looking for the cause. If you ignore them, you may end up being surprised by the client’s violent outburst. Under these circumstances you will instinctively revert to the way you have trained. If you have neither rehearsed nor planned a response, you will be left with a basic “startle response” which is rarely an appropriate response to a violent outburst.
Yet most social workers have nowhere near the training and equipment that a police officer has when responding to such situations. A client can decide when, where, and whom to attack, on grounds that may be totally irrational and indiscriminate. On the other hand, moral and psychological considerations that inhibit quick, impulsive action usually influence the worker.
Clients know you won’t make the first violent move. You may not want to use violence. You may find violence morally distasteful. Nevertheless, it is very likely that the client will not share your views. Faced with arrest, hospitalization, or with the removal of their children, clients may feel that they have nothing to lose. They may accept violence as a natural risk of their lifestyle. When they act, they are only thinking of themselves.
Usually there will be some clue or danger sign warning of violence. Something about the client’s behavior will indicate his or her intent. Learning the body language of violent clients is essential to your safety. You should watch for displays of pre-assaultive behavioral that will warn you of an impending attack.