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Training important for safety on the job

By Rena Malai, News staff

Larry Betcher knows firsthand the danger a social worker can encounter on the job, as one of his clients once flashed a butcher knife at him during an at-home visit.

This is one reason safety training is so important for social workers, said Betcher, an NASW board member.

“Social workers work with a wide range of patients. Many have capabilities to act out in a violent way,” he said. “People with mental illness don’t necessarily have an increased risk of danger, not in reality, but they may think they’re in danger and try to harm their social worker. Knowing de-escalation techniques, the ability to get out of a dangerous situation, and trusting your intuition, can help to keep a social worker safe.”

Several NASW chapters have taken social work safety training to heart, and the executive directors and staff have provided classes, workshops and information to members, students and nonmembers.

“The Massachusetts Chapter has been involved in social work safety training for quite some time,” said Julie Balasalle, the chapter’s  government relations and political action associate. “We have started a safety training program that consists of 11 trainers who we regularly work with to get social work safety training done in agencies (where social workers are employed).”

NASW-Massachusetts has been instrumental in working with state Rep. Sean Garballey, D-Arlington, and state Sen. Sal DiDomenico, D-Everett, Balasalle said, on filing legislation that would require all licensed agencies to have safety plans in place, including safety training for all employees.

“We work with agency administrators to talk about what a safety plan should look like, we work with schools of social work to prep students on safety for when they go into the field, and we advocate for legislation and state guidelines,” said Balasalle, whose past experience of being physically assaulted by a client reminds her that a good social work safety plan can help.

“As a new social worker at that time, I was completely unprepared,” she said. “That experience changed the way I practiced clinically. And we can do a better job of preparing social workers (for) what to expect, and how to protect themselves.”

Eva Skolnik-Acker is a key social work safety trainer at NASW-Massachusetts. She said although the chapter has been active in recent safety training, the concept is far from new.

“ … I have been doing this work for more than two decades, (and) this is the very best time in terms of safety to be a social worker,” she said. “The tide has turned from minimizing, avoiding or denying this could happen to us, to embracing the reality and doing something about it — not just in Massachusetts, but everywhere in the country.”

Kimberly Harper, executive director of the NASW Wyoming Chapter, has served as a guest lecturer on social work safety training for students at the University of Wyoming’s division of social work. She said safety training has been addressed in the state’s schools of social work for the last couple of years.

“The Wyoming Chapter is committed to providing education on social work safety training,” she said.

From the February 2013 NASW News. NASW members click here for the full story.

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