Monday, June 26, 2006

Workplace Violence: What It Mostly Is, What It Mostly Isn't

About once a year, I need to go through the tedious process of straightening the world out about workplace violence. The current round was stimulated by this article, "Workplace violence can be predicted, experts say." The article goes on to note that "Nationally, more than 20,000 incidents of workplace violence are reported each year, ranging from verbal threats and unwanted sexual advances to pinching and pummeling."

But then it starts going off the deep end. After informing us that
the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that workplace violence is most likely to occur on Mondays, from 8 a.m. until noon. And violent employees are most frequently men aged 35 to 44 who have been with their employer for one to five years,
the article then drags out its main example to illustrate that workplace violence can be prevented: Edgewater Technology Inc. in Wakefield, Mass., where a 42-year-old computer software tester shot and killed seven coworkers in 2000. According to the facility manager, in retrospect, there were numerous warning signs of a "troubled employee," including mood swings, changes in appearance, a messy divorce, a previous workers comp complaint for stress, fascination with weapons and explosives and a diagnosis of schizophernia.

Luckily, in these post 9/11 days, there's solutions at hand:
Matthew Cabral, an inspector for the federal protective service for the Department of Homeland Security, said that since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, companies and government offices have increased security with metal detectors, bulletproof glass and concrete barriers that appear decorative, such as flowerpots, to prevent people from driving into buildings.
Now, all of this is well and fine. It's possible that if the employer were more attuned to this man's problems, and if they had a decent Employee Assistance Program, the incident might have been prevented.

But this whole anecdote misses the point about the problem of workplace violence in this country. Less than ten percent of workplace homicides result from what's known as "worker-on-worker" violence -- where a current or former employees comes into the workplace and shoots or stabs former co-workers or supervisors.

The vast majority of workplace violence consists of retail workers being attacked during robberies, taxi drivers being robbed, health care and social service workers being attacked by patients and clients, and security personnel (law enforcement or private security guards) being attacked by violent individuals.

Just as an example, take a look at the list below, most of which was pulled from the latest "Weekly Toll," a list of workers killed on the job over the past two weeks. Only one of these can be considered "worker-on-worker" violence.

Builder security worker slain
Family Hopes $10K Reward Will Lead To Slain Worker's Killers
5 arrested in county worker's death
US agent among two dead in Florida prison gunfight
Cab Driver Found Dead In North Miami Beach Taxi

Hack's rare night shift proved deadly
Restaurant manager fatally shot in robbery
Pawn shop owner killed in Easley
Tattoo shop owner found dead
Liquor store clerk shot dead
Taxi Driver Found Dead Next To Cab
Gunman kills owner of store: This is fourth time in seven weeks a clerk in Modesto has been shot
Officer, Suspect Killed in Texas Standoff
Cordele store manager fatally stabbed
Security guard shot, killed near Victorville nightclub
Co-worker charged in fatal shooting
Pizza deliveryman, robbed and shot, dies of injuries
Video poker worker murdered
2 charged in slaying of parking attendant
Arrest made in death of liquor store owner

The premise of the article, however, is true: most of these incidents can be prevented. There are definite risk factors in retail establishments that can be addressed:
  • Working with money.
  • Working alone
  • Working late nights
  • Working in dangerous neighborhoods
In fact, in the late 1990's, OSHA published to workplace violence guidelines for health care workers and for late night retail workers, in addition to numerous fact sheets, and cites tons of literature describing steps employers can take to prevent workplace assaults. In addition, the state of New Mexico has issued a late night convenience store violence standard that requires convenience stores open between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. either to have two workers on duty, or one clerk and a security guard, or to install bulletproof glass or other safety features to limit access to store employees. The state of Washington enforces a "Late Night Retail Workers Crime Protection Act" which requires annual crime prevention training, drop-safes or limited access safes, and outside lighting.

Numerous labor unions and the American Public Health Association have called on OSHA to issue a workplace violence standard. Meanwhile, responding to the high level of threats and assaults against public employees, New YorkGovernor George Patacki signed a bill earlier this month calling for managers of government worksites where at least 20 permanent full-time employees work to assess the sites' potential for violence. That bill and two others have been a major focus of public employee union organizing.

The good news is that workplace homicides have been declining over the past few years, from 1080 in 1994 to 551 this year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bad news is that workplace homicides generally track the overall crime rate, which rose sharply last year after a downward trend over the past decade. Judging from the number of homicides in the average Weekly Toll, the workplace number may be rising again too.

The problem with articles like this is that they take the attention away from where the problem really lies. But, as I've written before, it's much more tempting to focus on the mentally unstable worker -- often postal workers -- who would come into work armed to the teeth and blow away their bosses and a few co-workers for good measure. These were fashionable because, unlike the unfashionable crowed, they got lots of press and provided fodder for armies of consultants who would scare employers into paying large sums for how to screen job applicants (or current employees) who might turn violent.

The bottom line is that any workplace violence policy should focus on the real risks of violence. While employers should be trained to deal with potentially unstable workers, it does little good to start profiling workers in a futile attempt to predict when one may go over the edge, while in the real workplace, workers are actually getting attacked by criminals and clients.

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