NDARC Technical Report No. 138 (2002)
Introduction: Since it was established in 1986, the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) has conducted numerous and diverse research projects involving large numbers of research participants. During this time, the number of staff employed by the Centre has expanded and many new staff members have varying experience with populations of drug and alcohol users when they commence at NDARC. Many participants in NDARC’s research studies have criminal histories, psychiatric conditions and a range of physical health problems. In March 2001, a Safety Committee was established to examine the safety issues specific to interviewing drug and alcohol users and to develop a practical set of guidelines to deal with such issues.
The aim of this report is to document the issues considered by the Committee, including recommendations for training and the development of the NDARC Safety and Interviewing Protocol. The report is intended for use as a resource and training manual for NDARC staff and a resource and review of interview safety issues for the drug and alcohol field.
Overview of safety issues: Drug and alcohol research participants come from a range of backgrounds and represent a broad spectrum of people. Many research participants are drawn from populations that could be considered ‘high risk’ in terms of interviewer safety, including:
Adequate training of interviewers is imperative to ensure that risks to staff are minimised. Training of interviewers is almost ubiquitous in drug and alcohol research, because it is considered an essential component of ensuring methodological rigour. However, regardless of the extent of an interviewer's experience with the target population, an interviewer's lack of familiarity with specific research methodologies and interview schedules can frustrate even tolerant, cooperative research participants. Thus, project specific training should be undertaken by all interviewers. General safety training should be administered to all interviewers prior to their first contact with research participants, and should address issues generic to all interview situations.
Interview locations: The choice of interview location is an important component of ensuring interviewer safety. An appropriate interview location is one in which (1) the safety of the interviewer is never under threat; and (2) the integrity of the interview is never compromised. Characteristics of good interview locations are those:
Guidelines on violence: Violence experienced by researchers can take different forms ranging from verbal abuse through to physical assault. Violence can be difficult to predict, however, the risk of violence is increased when the participant is:
Participants should be assessed physically and psychologically for intoxication, this can be done by assessing:
Opportunities for violence can be reduced by:
When a violent event occurs, the injured persons need to be comprehensively supported (both physically and psychologically) at the time of the event. Debriefing and support counselling should be offered.
Mandatory reporting: Information about plans to seriously hurt oneself or others, child abuse or other risk of harm could be revealed during an interview. In these cases the risk to self or others must be further evaluated, and additional assistance and referral may be required. Any incidents (whether reportable or of concern) should be reported to senior project staff, at the time they occur.
If information is revealed that a participant has plans to seriously hurt themselves, the interview should be stopped and the participant informed that a crisis clinic or a mental health professional or other authorities can be called, as needed or required by law. If significant depressive symptoms are disclosed these should be discussed with the participant, immediately if possible, and more information should be obtained.
If information is revealed that a participant has plans to seriously harm others, the seriousness of the participant’s plans should be evaluated to determine appropriate subsequent action. This may include making referrals and calling a crisis clinic, a mental health professional, or other authorities as necessary to protect other individuals and/or the participant.
If a young person discloses abuse or other risk of harm you are required by law to make a report to the Department of Community Services (DOCS). A young person is “at risk of harm” when they experience the following or when it is likely that one of these things will happen to them:
Before reporting any of these issues it is important that you obtain as much information as possible to satisfy yourself that the problem is reportable. Before proceeding the matter should be discussed with your supervisor.
If this information is revealed, stop the interview and inform the participant that this issue will be discussed further (after the interview or at that point). The participant should be informed that you are required to make a report to the DOCS. Alternatively, inform the participant that they may report their circumstances themselves, though this needs to be done at time of the interview.
Biological sampling: Care should be taken whenever collecting or handling biological samples. There are four main types of samples collected at NDARC: urine, hair, capillary blood spots and venous blood. Staff undertaking these procedures should be fully trained. In all cases the following procedures should be followed:
In the case of venous blood sampling staff will also need to be accredited in venipuncture. Before commencing a study involving venipuncture the University’s Bio-Safety Officer in the Risk Management Unit should be contacted. Staff must also be familiar with the University’s protocols and policies on biological safety and infection control.
In the event of needle stick injury or the exposure to blood or blood products the University’s Emergency Action Protocol for Needle Stick Injury must be followed:
Development of safety protocols: All institutions undertaking face-to-face interviews and field research with potentially problematic research participants should consider protocols specifically designed to maximise interviewer security. Safety protocols should be institution specific, and ratified by the institution management. Protocols must be comprehensive, yet flexible enough to accommodate a diverse range of research activities. A number of generic principles should be considered in the design of a safety protocol:
Based on these points, a protocol was developed for NDARC in May 2001 and fully implemented at the beginning of 2002.