Physical safety is the easiest aspect of a safety culture to describe, largely because it relies on tangible and concrete factors that can be easily evaluated and measured. Physical safety is usually what people think of when describing the sense of being safe, since without it, other forms of safety are difficult to achieve. Psychiatry has always recognized the importance of physical safety. Locked doors, bars on the windows, straitjackets, seclusion and restraints have all been used – and misused – in the service of physical safety. Unfortunately, however, an exclusive focus on the maintenance of physical safety tends to result in the creation of environments more like prisons than therapeutic spaces.
Feeling physically safe requires an environment that is free of threats to our physical wellbeing. Such an environment is free from: suicidality and self-destructive behavior: physical or sexual attacks on others; dangerous risk-taking behavior; substance abuse; physical hazards such as toxins, weapons; predatory aggression or coercion; threats; helplessness and lack of control; learned helplessness. Physically safe environments encourage: supportive and caring relationships; non-coercive forms of persuasion; healthy, safe, relational sexual behavior; good health practices; commitment to nonviolence to self and others; healthy expression of anger and assertiveness; opportunities for mastery experiences; avoidance of further experiences with helplessness; patience; repetition; structure that ensures success.
People who have been physically violated often present to human service delivery systems with defensive aggression. They are likely to need help managing their aggression and may be easily provoked to aggression because of chronic hyperarousal. They are likely to expect other people to be violent toward them so they need positive, nonviolent experiences with caregivers and may have to be “deconditioned” to violence in an environment that repeatedly responds to provocation with nonviolent behaviors.
As we have discovered, our refusal to tolerate violence of any sort constitutes our best defense against any breach in physical safety . Physical safety alone does not constitute a safe environment for growth. Likewise, breaches in physical safety generally do not occur until the other forms of safety have already been violated.