The Chairman of the Aras Attracta Review Group has said social care workers should go to the gardaí if they are seriously assaulted, "irrespective of what their managers or employers may say".
Dr Kevin McCoy was speaking at the official launch of new research which showed that 40% of social care workers employed in the disability sector experience workplace violence on a weekly basis, and that a majority of those working in the sector feel their employers are not addressing the issue.
The report, entitled 'An exploratory study on workplace violence and its effect on residential disability social care workers in Ireland: A mixed-method approach', was written by Agnieszka Mech-Butler and Róisín Swift and based on survey responses from 338 social care workers.
The respondents were mostly female, aged 25 to 34 and with between one and five years of experience.
92% of all those questioned agreed that workplace violence in the sector was under-reported.
The report found that only 31% were likely to seek support from their organisation while 42% were unlikely to do so.
Just 27% of respondents said they felt their organisation was doing enough to address the issue. More people were likely to reach out to a colleague or spouse.
One interviewee said: "There is an expectation that staff should accept that violence is part of their job."
Others said there was a culture of acceptance towards workplace violence and many said they could not bring the matter to the attention of their manager for fear of the consequences.
Some interviewees also cited resourcing issues which resulted in inadequate staffing and more pressure on those who were working to do more.
Dr McCoy said effective management and learning from past experiences were key aspects of limiting the scope for workplace violence, alongside a strong focus on respecting the service users and consulting with them around policies and rules.
"The team needs to ensure that residents should not learn about a rule for the first time when they are reprimanded for breaking it," he said.
Dr McCoy also said that a properly functioning residential unit would be as close as possible to a family home, with service users feeling like a part of the local community, rather than a situation where "people come to be defined by their difficulties".
Case reviews and learning from previous incidents would mean more effective prevention and de-escalation of incidents, he said, adding that staff should not be going to work expecting to be assaulted, while also being aware that a zero-tolerance approach could create "unrealistic expectations".
"When there is a higher potential of violence extra staff may be required," he said, recommending that instances of violence and of patterns of less serious incidents should both be recorded.
"A victim of any assault is absolutely right to report to police irrespective of what their manager or employer may say," he said, adding that in serious cases this can also reassure others who may have witnessed what occurred.
Some social care workers at the launch said that calling gardaí was sometimes a necessary approach but that it was also a reactive one.