Jess McCabe

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Hidden risks – Inside Housing latest

Inside Housing lifts the lid on the physical and verbal abuse experienced by housing professionals every day. Jess McCabe reports, with additional research by Gene Robertson

Machetes, hostage situations and flying Pot Noodles are just a few of the examples of the dangers faced by housing professionals in the past year.

Such incidents – let alone the daily grind of verbal abuse – rarely make the headlines. Yet every day thousands of housing professionals face physical or verbal abuse in the course of doing their jobs.

We wanted to find out exactly what life is like for front line house staff and to measure how well protected they feel by their organisations’ health and safety policies.

To do so, we carried out a multi-part investigation, using freedom of information requests to get councils to release figures on the number of physical and verbal assaults on their housing staff. We then combined this with a survey of some of the biggest housing associations in the country.

We also invited individual housing professionals to tell us about their experiences of assaults in an anonymous online survey. The combined result is a comprehensive analysis of the risks those front line staff faced over the past year and an indication that the measurement and subsequent management of these risks is extremely mixed.

What did we find?

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Housing staff working for the 204 social landlords who supplied us with data were subjected to 3,305 physical and verbal assaults in 2014. And in the first three months of 2015 alone, another 891 incidents were reported.

In another worrying indicator, our anonymous survey also found that the vast majority of the 64 housing professionals who responded – 75% – believe that enduring these experiences is ‘just part of the job’.

“Managers did nothing – they did not even make a formal report of it.”

Nonetheless, there was some good news. Last year, a similar annual survey carried out by Inside Housing found a worrying rise of 22% in reported assaults, the third year in a row in which the number of incidents rose. Although the total number of assaults remains high, that dramatic jump has not been repeated, and the number of assaults has dipped slightly.

The 149 organisations for which we have comparable numbers, because they have supplied data for two years in a row, reported 2,557 total assaults in 2014. This is down about 3% on the 2,633 reported by the same organisations in 2013. The reduction is due mostly to a fall in the number of recorded physical assaults, from 344 incidents in 2013 to 245 in 2014.

In the first three months of 2015, they reported 673 incidents, which is 25 fewer incidents than the 698 reported in the first quarter of 2014.

For use in Inside Housing, 19 June 2015

Fifty-four organisations responded to our investigation for the first time this year.

Can we assume from this analysis that housing officers are seeing a real decrease in the number of attacks on them? A deeper look at the data suggests this may not be the case.

One in three housing professionals told us in response to our anonymous survey they have not reported to their employer all the incidents that have happened to them. Of the staff who did report incidents, only 27% were happy with how their employer handled it.

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“Staff feel that if they put a complaint in about a resident, the organisation is so pro-resident they would get the blame for causing the problem.”

One council employee working in homelessness told us of ‘many incidents, including but not limited to being sworn at, spat at, threatened, and threats to family members’. However, this officer is another who tends not to report incidents, partly because this is not encouraged. ‘I didn’t report the swearing or verbal threats, but did report that I was almost punched,’ they told us. ‘Managers did nothing – they did not even make a formal report of it.’

Some housing professionals told us that they had reported an incident involving a tenant, but were put off because their manager seemed to side with the tenant.

John Gray, who represents housing staff on the national executive committee of Unison, says this issue is often raised by members of the union. ‘There’s a cultural problem,’ he says. ‘Staff feel that if they put a complaint in about a resident, the organisation is so pro-resident they would get the blame for causing the problem.’ This, he points out, is not the way to keep staff – or tenants – safe. If a resident is threatening staff, it is a good bet they are also threatening their neighbours.

And candid assessments by housing professionals cast some doubt on the reliability of the figures supplied by social landlords who told us they had no incidents of verbal or physical abuse to report this year. ‘There’s nowhere where it’s zero,’ is Mr Gray from Unison’s assessment. ‘Zero means that stuff is not being reported.’

Unreported incidents

The landlords themselves often acknowledge that the statistics are incomplete or unrepresentative. Monmouthshire Council, for example, officially recorded zero verbal or physical assaults in 2014 or the first three months of 2015. However, in its freedom of information response, the council estimated that the real level of incidents is six verbal assaults a week.

Social landlords have a duty to carry out risk assessments, and keeping a record of incidents such as assaults on staff is an important part of this. Glynn Gibson works at a local authority and is a fellow member of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health. He points out: ‘You need to do your risk assessment – if you don’t know what’s going on in your area, and you’ve not got the evidence, how do you really know what the problem is? That’s why you need the evidence.’ The best practice, he adds, is for social landlords to keep a database of incidents – and require their contractors to do so as well.

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Severe incidents are going unreported. A housing manager in London, for example, told Inside Housing that a tenant had threatened ‘to come to the office and beat me up’. But this incident, like uncounted others, does not appear in the total number of assaults, because it was never reported. The manager told us: ‘I’m not sure who I would report it to or what would be done.’

Some housing associations and councils are still not collecting any figures on the number of assaults on their staff. A small handful of housing associations and councils even seem to have stopped collecting this information. These social landlords told us they are not recording figures for the number of assaults on their staff, even though they were able to tell us their assaults statistics as recently as last year.

5,500-home Hillcrest Housing Association in Scotland responded: ‘Unfortunately, this is not something that we keep specific stats on so I can’t provide you with info, which I’m hoping is an indication that verbal and physical assaults are not common within our housing teams.’

Yet is that assumption justified? Shoreline, a 7,900-home association in Lincolnshire, for example, has gone to lengths to encourage staff to report incidents. This seems to be working – it told us of 79 verbal assaults in 2014, which includes verbal abuse, harassment and intimidation. It reported another 30 in the first quarter of 2015.

It is among the social landlords that are aware of the under-reporting problem and have been hard at work trying to fix it. We saw evidence of this in new programmes to encourage staff to report incidents.

Sarah Grant, housing crime prevention manager at Shoreline, explains that this is achieved by setting up a central point of information on the staff intranet for all safety procedures, and repeatedly encouraging staff to use it at team meetings and through internal communications. ‘It’s that constant reminder that we have this process in place,’ she explains.

From those councils and housing associations that keep thorough records of abuse and assaults, it is possible to build a picture of the kind of incidents faced by frontline staff. Take Derby Homes, the 13,500-home arm’s length management organisation. The 106 assaults recorded by this organisation in 2014 include one incident of someone being spat at in the face, an incident of racist abuse that was also directed at other service users, and 44 threats of physical violence.

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Most of the people who reached out to tell us their stories were front line housing officers, working with tenants. But stories of assaults came from a vast array of jobs, such as the fire and asbestos safety worker who told us: ‘I had hot Pot Noodle thrown at me from the first floor window.’

One north west manager told us she was returning from lunch and ‘passed a tenant who then punched me in the neck’. She told us she had had no previous contact with this tenant.

Verbal threats

Frightening verbal abuse is, like in previous years, by far the most common sort of incident reported, making up 88% of assaults.

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Thirty-three per cent of respondents to our anonymous survey told us they had been threatened in writing. Even if these incidents are at one remove from being assaulted in person, they can still be scary. In many cases, they revolve around attempts to get the individual fired.

One respondent told us of a resident who ‘mentioned me by name in a Facebook post saying that they were “coming to get me”’.

“We have more vulnerable tenants with mental health, drug and alcohol issues that can make them very unpredictable.”

Although housing professionals often perceived their managers to see them as ‘guilty until proven innocent’, in the words of one respondent, these written threats leave little to the imagination.

A tenant threatened to kick me in written correspondence,’ one anti-social behaviour officer told us.

As in previous years, we wanted to know if budget pressures and welfare reforms are putting housing professionals in greater danger.

A full 60% of respondents to our survey agreed with the statement that the welfare reforms have ‘increased the risk of you and your colleagues being assaulted while doing your jobs in housing’.

‘It is harder to find colleagues that are able to attend a double-handed visit now as we have had a huge reduction in staff, although we are actively recruiting,’ one officer told us – this respondent had recently been pushed out of the door by a tenant.

This is compounded by greater pressures on tenants. ‘Our tenant profile is changing all the time,’ this officer added. ‘We have more vulnerable tenants with mental health, drug and alcohol issues that can make them very unpredictable. Only recently, I was visiting a tenant on my own and had no reason for concern. During a visit for repairs, he attacked the operative with no warning.’

Some social landlords are rising to the challenge of ensuring the safety of housing staff, particularly front line employees.

Staff safety

Every year of this survey has uncovered examples of social landlords beefing up their policies and procedures to both record incidents of violence and abuse, and keep front line staff safe.

Yorkshire Housing, for example, is trialling a new safety app for lone workers, which tracks location and raises an alarm if staff fail to check in after they’ve gone to an appointment. It is being tested by the team looking after private rents and market sales, because this involves staff going alone to meetings with potential customers they know little about.

Sally Lynch, head of space, property and new business, says that the initial six-month trial went well, and the 16,000-home landlord is now considering whether to roll it out more generally. ‘If you lose signal, you can be tracked on GPS,’ she notes of one of the benefits.

Liverpool Mutual Homes is planning to train staff in ‘conflict resolution’, and is hiring a health and safety expert to assess the organisation’s policies.

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‘We have seen an increase in reporting of near misses and verbal aggression,’ says Liverpool Mutual Homes safety, health, environmental and quality manager Keith Gorman. The 15,000-home association reported 10 assaults last year, after introducing training and encouraging staff to report incidents. ‘I expect that this has always been part of the job for public-facing staff,’ says Mr Gorman. ‘However, due to the publicity promotions, we are now starting to get a realistic idea of the problems and have been able to focus resources on this.’

“If something were to happen and I was in a property with no reception, then I wouldn’t be able to call the police or notify the lone worker system.”

One respondent had a glowing report of their employer’s policy, which came into play after a frightening incident with a tenant wielding a weapon. ‘Fortunately, every incident is recorded and passed onto our enforcement team for further action against the tenants,’ this repairs manager told us. ‘This ultimately leads to a marker being placed on our internal intelligence systems so a warning can be flagged up to any other persons visiting the property. We are always kept in the loop on what happens to violent tenants as part of the victim support and managers’ feedback system.’

One anti-social behaviour officer in London who was subjected to racist abuse by a tenant told us they were mostly satisfied – the tenant was served notice for possession over the incident.

But under the condition of anonymity, some individual housing professionals tell a different story. Take the example of this anti-social behaviour officer, trapped in a flat by a tenant and then attacked. ‘He kicked off and swore, carried on and jabbed towards me to hit me in my face,’ the officer recalls. ‘Safety measures were initiated, but cost has stopped implementation. My manager didn’t fully believe or appreciate the severity.’

Another housing officer told us of technical difficulties with safety devices. ‘We are provided phones which are out of date, often get no network reception within our blocks and are supposed to use these to log into the lone worker system. If something were to happen and I was in a property with no reception, then I wouldn’t be able to call the police or notify the lone worker system.’

Until social landlords collect accurate figures on the number of incidents, the sector will only be guessing at the scale of the problem, let alone finding solutions that keep staff safe.

Housing professionals are already acutely aware of the dangers of the job. ‘I’ve always worked on my own. I’m no more at risk now than I was before,’ one Welsh housing professional told us. ‘There is no lone working policy. I do often wonder who would even notice if I didn’t come back from site.’

In numbers

88%

Assaults which are verbal abuse

294

Number of physical assaults reported in 2014

90

Number of physical assaults in the first three months of 2015

3,305

Total number of assaults reported in 2014

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