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Walk down any suburban street in Australia and almost certainly you will pass by a residence where the occupant(s) are receiving some form of community based medical, therapeutic, counselling or home care service.

It’s an expected benefit of living in one of the world’s wealthiest societies. Here in Australia older people are visited by community workers, volunteers and other professionals to ensure health and wellbeing are maintained.

But what happens when the personal safety of community service workers is challenged? Alone in an unfamiliar environment, where someone is behaving unpredictably, one can very quickly become overwhelmed and an otherwise ‘safe’ situation can become threatening.

Regrettably, few who work in this field can claim never to have experienced some level of random behaviour either from their client, a family member, some other person in the home, or even someone in the street.

The effect of this experience can be devastating on the carer and lead to anxiety, depression, resignation from the job, and in extreme cases, hospitalisation. The home visiting environment is not one that can be readily controlled by a visitor. There are no support staff, supervisors or security guards to intervene when things go wrong.

It falls upon the employer to ensure that appropriate systems, processes, policies and procedures are in place to mitigate the risk to their staff. Part of this systems approach may include training that can equip workers with the knowledge and skills they require to get through an incident unscathed.

Skills and strategies that can be acquired through training should include:

  • Threat and risk assessment;
  • Contingency planning;
  • Non-physical conflict resolution;
  • Practical strategies to mitigate risk and to protect  workers in the event of an assault;
  • Legal framework; and
  • Activities designed to reinforce understanding and the required responses.

Workers can benefit by being taught the skills and techniques necessary to allow them to:

  1. Assess the level of risk in an environment.
  2. Recognise the early signs of unpredictable behaviour.
  3. Develop a contingency plan on the spot.
  4. Attempt resolution in an non-threatening way.
  5. Withdraw from an incident before it escalates into violence or harm to either party.

These techniques and skills do not come naturally to most people and once taught need to be refreshed in line with other OHS training.

Literature tells us that there are tangible benefits for organisations and staff members who undertake education about safe work practices. Staff hold their employer in higher regard for making the training about them and as a result retention rises and members work to a higher standard. They feel empowered to control their environment armed with a deeper understanding of the nature of the risks and how to minimise them.

It is up to employers, with the support of our peak bodies, to protect community care, outreach and social workers from potential risks to their safety. The risks to personal safety could be substantially mitigated by recommending and implementing an industry wide focus on improving safe work practices for community based care programs.

This article is an opinion piece written by Simon Stratford, Senior Consultant – Client Solutions, Holland Thomas and Associates.

This article first appeared in LASA Voice, Autumn 2013 edition.

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Simon Stratford
Senior Consultant Client Solutions
Holland Thomas & Associates