Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Post Office Shootings: What's Going On?

An former postal employee shot and killed six people and critically wounded another before committing suicide at a mail processing plant in Goleta, California. Not much is known yet about the incident, and neither the names of the victims nor the shooter is known.

I'm not sure what to say about this yet. I just want to refer you to a post I wrote last Spring reviewing a story about an auto worker who had killed several co-workers -- possibly due in large part to abuse by his former managers. I warned then against relying on the "crazy worker" theory of workplace violence which ignores organizational causes, and particularly hostile work environments:
Talk to any human behavior or violence expert and they'll tell you that there is a point at which any human being can be driven to violence. It differs from person to person, but no one is immune. But just blaming a violent event on an aberrant personality that "doesn't take criticism well, holds a grudge, and is repeatedly disciplined," borders on malpractice if organizational factors in the workplace, or any harassment the worker had been suffering are ignored.
Cervantes at Stayin' Alive contributes to this theme, citing experts who note writing that these sorts of incidents are signals that something is very wrong in the lives of many workers.
this sort of incident appears to be, at least in some cases, part of the price we pay for the commodification of work. For many people in industrial societies, work is just something they exchange for money. The work itself is merely unpleasant, dehumanizing, meaningless. And to management, the workers are just resources to be maintained in usable condition only to the extent that the investment is worth it. Low-skilled, easily replaced workers merit little consideration.
Now this may be true, but some of the factors that Cervantes cites, including mandatory overtime, a constant drive for increased productivity, and an uneducated, unskilled, relatively highly paid workforce that see losing a well paying job as a disaster, are factors in many workplaces. But from what I know about this type of workplace violence, there's often another, more important factor in many of these cases -- extraordinarily abusive treatment of workers by managers. The phrase "going postal" didn't evolve because postal workers are more off balance or alienated than other industrial workers, but rather that the working environment in post offices has frequently been extraordinarily abusive and stressful. As I said above, take a stressed out or somewhat at-risk person and add abuse and harrassment....at some point people crack. And if they also have easy access to guns....

Speaking of easy access to guns.... Workers Comp Insider points out that a growing number of states are allowing workers to bring guns to work (or even worse, penalizing employers for prohibiting guns to work), which is probably not a good idea considering that a study published in the American Journal of Public Health finding that murders are three times more likely to occur in workplaces that permit employees to carry weapons than in workplaces that prohibit all weapons.


Related Stories

Workplace Shootings: Crazy Workers or Crazy Workplaces?, May 29, 2005
Workplace Violence: Fashionable vs. Unfashionable, January 18, 2004