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October 18, 2006

Social workers unsafe on the job

Another social worker was killed on the job this week. 67-year-old Boni Frederick was found beaten and stabbed to death after paying a house visit to a troubled family. Earlier this year Sally Blackwell a social worker from Texas was found dead in the field.

Jordan Barab writes:

Threats and violence against social service workers is nothing new, but it rarely rises into the headlines until someone gets killed. A recent study conducted by the National Association of Social Workers found that 55 percent of 5,000 licensed social workers surveyed said they faced safety issues on the job. Sixty-eight percent of them said their employers had not adequately addressed their concerns. A survey in 2002 of 800 workers found 19 percent had been victims of violence and 63 percent had been threatened.

As Jordan explains, these workers are not without legal protection, if only OSHA were willing to enforce its own guidelines on workplace violence:

In 1997, federal OSHA issued Guidelines for Preventing Workplace Violence for Health Care Social Service Workers to assist health care and social service workers to prevent workplace violence. The guideliens established workplace violence as a legitimate hazard that employers had a responsibility to prevent, and provided specific examples of how to prevent such assaults -- like not working alone, better communication, background checks, etc -- but OSHA refuses to enforce its own recommendations.

These social service workers are the victims of cost-cutting measures that overload them with work and fail to support them. Increasingly, social workers are traveling alone to visits where they normally would have gone in pairs for safety, or even been escorted by law enforcement. Mental health workers are working behind non-reinforced doors because there's no money to shore them up.

The workers who do some of society's most difficult and necessary work are not being protected on the job. We tend to think about occupational safety in terms of male-dominated occupations like construction or mining. As the deaths of social workers illustrate, female-dominated occupations like social work and nursing can be equally hazardous. It's important to keep in mind that you don't have to work with heavy machinery in order to be at risk on the job.


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We tend to think about occupational safety in terms of male-dominated occupations like construction or mining.

Yeah we do. Yikes! It never occured to me that social workers face that kind of hazard.

This president's record on worker safety is the worst. Thanks for covering this story!

I think you are being absurd here. Two deaths and you claim that it's as dangerous as men's work? Why don't you look up the statistics?

All the most dangerous jobs out there are male jobs - meaning something like over 90-95% of the employees are male. This is a huge issue of sexism against men which is ignored and dismissed just as all sexism against men is.

Offhand the most dangerous non-male job I can think of is professional dancing which is about 50-50 and --- seriously they get a lot of on the job injuries apparently.

Logging, mining, deep sea diving, garbage collection, truck drivers and yes construction. Men feel obliged to take on dangerous jobs that pay more because they are supposed to be the wage earners. And then feminists complain that women who had the choice and took the choice to work safe jobs don't get paid the same.

Funny how we don't hear about the gender "death gap".

My point is that all occupational health is important. Workplace hazards aren't always obvious. It's important to think beyond the traditional categories of job safety in order to make sure that everyone is safe on the job and that everyone's rights are respected.

Even more importantly, OSHA drew up health and safety standards for social service workers in 1997, but the agency won't enforce them. So, employers get away with unsafe work practices and people die unecessarily. That's absurd.

Well of course they don't enforce them. Hasn't the US got more people employed watching for safety concerns of dolphins and wales than construction workers?

Your comments suggest that the "traditional categories of job safety" are actually functioning properly and that as a result we can look at far smaller issues like these women's jobs. That is not true. The issue of workplace safety is almost entirely an issue of neglect of the well known dangerous male jobs. They may be well known to be dangerous but that doesn't mean anything is being done about it.

And if you want to talk about "Workplace hazards aren't always obvious" then you'd still be looking at male-only jobs. Sure people know construction is dangerous but they don't know garbage collection is.

Generally it's the male jobs that people underappreciate the dangers of. For example we hear all about how dangerous female models' weight issues can be but we never hear about the far more serious weight issues of male jockeys.

The story above is an example of how danger in male jobs is dismissed and danger in women's jobs, as rare as it is, is over highlighted. In fact it's because there's so little danger in female jobs that a death is news in the first place. It's shocking because it is so rare.

It's also shocking because women's deaths are considered a worse tragedy by society. That of course is a big part of the problem.

David, I don't know why you're picking a fight about this. Occupational health is sorely neglected in this society. Agreed? Good. Everyone should be safe on the job. Agreed?

In this wealthy country we could easily fund OSHA to make sure that miners have ventilation, roofers have harnesses, social workers have the buddy system for dangerous home visits, and much more.

It's not a zero-sum game.

Social workers do some of society's most difficult and necessary jobs? Who knew?

DavidByron WTF? The point is that NO worker should have to put up with that shit.

My first "real" job was in a giant industrial, non-union laundry. Both men AND women got to share the pleasure of breathing cotton/linen dust and asbestos, enduring extreme heat (hit 120 one day), extreme noise (w/ zero hearing protection), exposure to pathogens (we did hospital –think diapers and blood- and prison laundry), standing on concrete with wafer-thin hard rubber pads (not enough to go around), etc., etc. We at least got paid. Half the workers were inmates from the state hospital for the mentally disabled where the laundry was located. They got relief from the tedium of a life spent in an institution and nothing more. There was a bank of giant industrial scale dryers that all fed into a common duct. The duct, which was about three feet in diameter was not fitted to the wall right, so much of the steam and dust just blew right back in where we worked. There were not always enough workers to go around, so you made sure you went to the can during the breaks, because the work piled up too fast to walk away from it when the machines were running. Oh yes, did I mention minimum wage? Did I mention the rubber bumpers that were supposed to quiet the machinery that had fallen apart years before? The pads on the mangle rollers that were replaced while we kept working in a haze of asbestos dust?

No one was killed on the job, at least while I worked there. I have no x-ray evidence that anyone’s lungs were damaged. No one’s hearing was ever tested. I guess everything was peachy then. Certainly a good place for a woman to find a nice safe working environment.

If you think women don’t work under unsafe conditions, I have to figure you, and the women you know, have lived with enough money that you didn’t have to mix with the blue collar plebs that do.
Get a real fucking job.

Glad to know that, to DavidByron, my on-the-job torn ligament that required knee surgery is completely unimportant because I'm a woman. I should have stood aside and let all of the men who were injured doing important jobs get helped first.

Thanks, David. That really puts things in perspective to know that my work-related injury is far, far less important than any man's injury.

For those who think Social Work is not dangerous - try working in corrections or inpatient pyschiatric program when somebody - yes the Social Worker -has to confront aggressive individuals with the behaviors that placed them there. Yes it is a choice - but sensless death is not.

Hey, Lindsay, first time reader (got here through the Carnival of Feminists) and just have to tell you thanks for this post....I am a licensed Social Worker and safety is one of those things that we all talk about and pretty much nobody else does. I love what I do, I consider it a calling not just a job, but my safety being in real jeopardy has been the cause of me leaving at least one company. This company was a provider of mental health services and so I have to respond to part of your post:

"Mental health workers are working behind non-reinforced doors because there's no money to shore them up."

Where I worked, they got rid of the locks on the doors separating the patients from the workers not because of money issues, but because they said that doing this promoted a more "recovery centered" atmosphere and made it less "jail-like" for our patients. The issue that many of our patients frequently ARE in jail and are, in fact, violent and (at times) dangerous individuals did not seem to bother anyone who was in charge of making this decision.

My point is, that I find that the safety of Social Workers is not only jeopardized by lack of money, but by the sense that since we are supposedly all in this for the greater good and because it is a caring profession that we shouldn't be worried about safety or the conviction by some that to be worried about safety is to insult our clients and buy-in to the stereotypes about them that we generally try to battle against.

Hey Marianne and Brian! Thanks for offering a perspective from the field.

I've always thought of social work as one of society's most difficult jobs. Only recently have I learned how much physical danger is associated is associated with your profession.

Keep up the good work. You've got lots of fellow citizens cheering you on. Let us know what we can do to support your mission.

Children’s Protective Social Workers have an unmanageably difficult job. They are the bearers of bad news, and everyone wants to kill the messenger.

Children’s Protective Social Workers are never mentioned in the same breath of success as law enforcement, fire fighters, attorneys, judges, teachers, or doctors.

Parents, and just about everyone thinks that they are the child's social worker's boss.

I know of no other profession where the professional is subjected to as much rejection and vilification, except an IRS agent or an actor. . . an the latter is trying to have fun.

Sally Blackwell's case resulted in her ex-boyfriend's son being arrested for her murder. Unless you're assuming this isn't correct, her murder had nothing to do with her job. I'm not saying it's not a hazardous job, because it is, but "As the deaths of social workers illustrate" doesn't quite work if you're including her as an example.

Just wanted to say thank you for all your effort to educate others on the reality of unsafe work. It's clear to see that many of you are very passionate in your beliefs. Now if only it were easier to get those who should listen to listen.

"Safe Jobs"
Stolen life'
After the fall.
Forgotten it seems.
Escaping it all.
Justice is rare,
Often it's missed.
Because job safety,
Seems not to exist!

© 2003

In Loving Memory of Kevin Scott Noah.
July 5,1960 * August 13,2002

Thanks Again for all your effort,

Mary Vivenzi
United Support & Memorial
For Workplace Fatalities
Ignorance is more intelligent than undeveloped knowledge.


Having lost a loved one myself I have to say To simply say thank you seems to be far to inadequate of a gesture to covey that gratitude I feel for you and what it is your doing. Still I'm hopeful that you realize how much it means to someone like me just knowing that your out here fighting the good fight.

God Bless,


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