Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Poor working conditions = unsafe practice

When I was a student social worker in the 1970s I undertook one of my practice placements - in what was then called ‘social services’ - in a large building in the centre of a large town not too far from London. I may have only been a student social worker, but, like every other social worker that worked there, I had my own office. To be sure it was not a large office and it was nothing fancy, but it was private and quiet and clean.

It seems things have changed .... for the worse.

This week I read a sad report in Professional Social Work of an interesting and alarming survey concerning working conditions of social workers in Britain in 2015. It is peppered with words like ‘cramped’, ‘noisy’, ‘dark’ and ‘dirty’. Indeed more than 60% of those questioned did not think their workplace was fit for purpose.

Many of the respondents complained vociferously about shared work spaces and 'hot desking' with more than 60% not having a quiet place to make sensitive phone calls and more than 70% saying that there was no quiet place to work and concentrate.

It is shocking that in 2015 working conditions for social workers are as bad as they are. It’s not just that it is unpleasant and dispiriting to work in an unpleasant environment, it is downright dangerous.

Distraction due to background noise is an important factor in workplace error and has been recognised as something that needs to be minimised in many safety critical industries. In civil aviation the ‘sterile cockpit rule’ is a mandatory requirement for there to be no distraction on the flight deck during critical parts of the flight. 

In nursing red tabards are worn by nurses, indicating that they should not be disturbed during a drug round. These have been found to result in reduced medication errors. 

There is simply no excuse for employers creating or tolerating conditions in which social workers are more likely to make errors. Serious attention needs to be given to how to achieve safe workplaces – albeit on limited budgets - which are quiet, comfortable and have dedicated private spaces. Failure to do so risks more than the welfare of members of the workforce – it risks the safety of children and young people.