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Headshot of author Kendra KuehnInnovative Efforts: Texas Worker Safety Support Unit

by Kendra Kuehn, MSW, National Adult Protective Services Association

Worker safety is of utmost concern for Adult Protective Services (APS) staff. The Administration for Community Living recognizes its importance in the National Voluntary Consensus Guidelines for State Adult Protective Services Systems (Guidelines) by calling for development of policies, protocols, resources, and training around safety issues. The Guidelines cite findings from a 2018 study that workers experience an average of 3.42 different hazard exposures per month ranging from environmental hazards to physical safety threats. And safety stressors can drastically impact effectiveness and increase risk of burnout (Ghesquiere, Plichta, McAfee, & Rogers, 2018). Guideline recommendations include implementing systems to know where workers are while in the field, providing agency cell phones, arranging to have backup as needed, and issuing protective equipment such as face masks.

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) has gone further and created the Worker Safety Support unit to respond to safety challenges. DFPS encompasses 13,000 employees and oversees Child Protective Services (CPS), child care licensing, and  APS across the state. The program started small and now serves APS, CPS, and other DFPS staff who request assistance. In addition to working on safety, the program has helped to significantly reduce turnover in the department. Their mission is to assist “staff by providing awareness and support focusing on staff safety and resilience.”

Rachel Duer joined the Worker Safety Support unit in 2017 and has been the Director since 2018. Prior to joining the unit, Rachel was a Community Engagement Program Specialist with Adult Protective Services for 10 years. We caught up with Rachel on where the program started and her advice for other APS agencies.

How did the unit get its start?

The Worker Safety Support unit was created in 2014 after several serious instances involving field staff. In one case, family members of a client held a worker at gunpoint for over two hours. Another worker was hospitalized after being mauled by a dog while on a home visit. The agency realized there was no one program that provided support to staff for help with appropriate reporting of safety incidents and accessing resources. The program was started as a state funded pilot in one region of the state. It was so successful the legislature approved funding of the effort to support staff statewide. It is now part of the Operations Division at DFPS and continues to be fully funded by the state.

How does the Worker Safety Support Unit operate and what roles do team members play?

The unit is composed of six staff. Three Program Specialists are assigned to specific regions of the state. They are the primary contact for DFPS staff after incidents. The specialists are also available for local training and presentations. The Management Analyst is responsible for data tracking and reporting. The Information Specialist is responsible for media and promotional information. They also administer the SafeSignal application. As the Director, I oversee the team and its operations.

DFPS contracts with a prviate company that provides a smartphone application to frontline caseworkers. The app allows users to contact law enforcement or first responders in an emergency without having to unlock their phone. It uses GPS to provide location of the worker. The app allows workers to leave a situation safely while still requesting emergency assistance.

What trainings does the unit provide to help DFPS do their job safely?

The Worker Safety Support unit provides a variety of trainings such as personal and online safety and planning for safety in the field. We have developed a full-day training on worker safety which is offered through our training division. We also provide webinars for staff to view at their convenience.

What do you view as the successes of the Worker Safety Support unit?

Staff now have a dedicated program to provide support and assistance after serious incidents whether it’s an assault, a threat, or harassment. The development of the unit has also increased the number of staff DFPS has to provide worker safety services. We have developed and delivered safety training around the state and updated the safety policy for DFPS. The program has also developed relationships with DFPS management and other programs to provide wrap around support services for the worker when needed.

The unit does some great work. Are there challenges the unit has encountered?

The main challenge we have as a program is to serve the large number of DFPS staff with a small team of six. When the program first started, the focus was on supporting field staff who were direct workers. Due to the program’s success, we now provide support to all DFPS staff. As a result, we have seen the number of reported incidents increase over several years. In fiscal year 2018, we received a total of 491 incident reports. Closing out fiscal year 2021, we have reached almost 1,200 reports. We continuously work to train DFPS staff on the program and the assistance we can provide.

You have a strong, innovative program. What advice do you have for agencies on establishing a worker safety team in their own state or locality?

Support and dedication from your leadership is key to the success of the program. DFPS already had staff doing many of the functions the team does now, but staff did not know where to turn to or who to ask for information. Worker Safety Support is now the primary program responsible for tracking incidents and providing the initial support services. It is a central source of support. You should decide what role the program needs to fill in your agency and go from there.

What do you recommend as best practices for APS programs on worker safety?

Develop a safety plan for your program or the full agency, if possible. The plan should provide guidance to staff on how to remain safe on the job.

Support staff in staying safe in all situations. DFPS teaches staff that they have permission to get out of a dangerous situation if needed. This policy is supported from the front-line supervisor up to the Commissioner. A scared employee is an ineffective employee. DFPS has a responsibility to provide a safe working environment for all staff.

Make a plan proactively. We develop a plan for preparing for safety before staff go out. Review all known sources of information you have on a new case before you do an initial home visit, and plan for the unknown.

Thank you, Rachel, for sharing about the Texas DFPS Worker Safety Support Unit.

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