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TAKING PRECAUTIONS
HERE IS SOME HELP FOR WORKERS WHOSE SAFETY IS AT RISK

Safety has taken on a new importance in the workplace. And many office buildings have stepped up security.

But many people -- health care aides and real estate agents, for example -- make their living by going into other people's homes, where personal safety could be at risk.

Real estate agents are especially vulnerable because their pictures constantly appear in the paper and on the Internet. Each year about five to 10 real estate agents are murdered. Hundreds more are raped and assaulted, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

These workers face more risks but can make their jobs safer by taking a few precautions, such as always meeting a client at the office first. It's not only a smart idea, but also a good sales technique.

"If it's a serious buyer, they will come into the office," said Phil Aquila, general sales manager for M.J. Peterson Real Estate. "If it's someone who's playing games, they won't come into the office. It's best to be extra cautious in this day and age."

Meeting at the office also makes it easier for female realtors to take a colleague with them if they are showing a house to a man who isn't going to have his wife or girlfriend along.

Taking that precaution saved one of M.J. Peterson realtor from what almost certainly would have been a bad situation.

A man once called Sharon L. Ciminelli, an associate broker, wanting to see a vacant property.

"To accommodate the person, I agreed to do it, but I brought my husband with me," she said. "The car pulled up. As soon as they saw my husband at the door, they sped away."

Another real estate agent was not so lucky.

In 1988, Arcade realtor Gayle Wolfer Sprague was shot in the face and neck three times after a gunman gained entry by posing as a prospective home buyer. She had taken the precaution of showing the home while both the owner and his wife were present. She is now deaf in one ear but continues working as a real estate agent for Stovroff Realty.

Home health care aides also face some of the same risks as real estate agents. While the agency knows something about the person the aides are caring for, they never know who might be in the house.

"There have been incidents where there were physical confrontations between an aide and a family member and they dialed 911," said Todd Brason, CEO of Willcare, a home health care and staffing agency.

One time the agency was caring for a woman whose son had recently been parolled after being convicted of a sex crime. In that situation, Brason sent male aides.

That's also why Kim LeCounte, a home health aid for Willcare, prefers to oversee several aides who care for residents in an apartment building on Elmwood Avenue that has a security system. When she started with Willcare in 1995, she went to individual homes.

"You don't know who they have in there," she said. "Not everyone has cream-of-the-crop relatives."

No matter what the profession, there are some steps these workers can take to protect themselves.

James M. LaValley started designing and teaching self-defense programs after an acquaintance was beaten and raped. As the owner of a real estate firm in the Adirondacks, he has often given his course through the New York State Association of Realtors.

"A lot of it is common sense," he said. "It could range from being careful where the discussion goes to letting the person go down into the basement themselves."

His suggestions:

Make sure the office knows where you are.

Carry a cell phone, even if the company doesn't provide one.

Park your car on the street, not in the driveway, so someone else cannot pull in behind and trap you.

Stay in the main part of the home. Avoid going into bedrooms, attics or basements.

"We also suggest that the agents have some sort of policy on call backs to the office with code words," said Priscilla S. Toth, director of professional development for the state realtors group.

"If I was feeling really uncomfortable at a particular location, I could call the office and use a code word that would indicate the level of danger," she said. "You may say something like, 'I ordered Chinese food and I'm running late with my client and I can't pick it up.' "

If an attack does happen, there are some statements that might deter the attack, LaValley said. "Tell them another agent will be by in a few minutes, that your HIV positive or that you're pregnant," he said.

If you are attacked, fight back with anything at hand and aim for areas of the body where you'll do the most damage, such as the eyes or groin.

In the vast majority of cases, workers entering the homes of others don't encounter too many problems.

"But you can never be too careful," LaValley said.

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