Friday, August 6, 2010

A Rush to Judgement?

The workplace violence tragedy that shattered Hartford Distributors in Manchester, Connecticut, this week has attracted much attention...

image courtesy wikimedia commons

Those of in the security trade have worked to prevent all forms of workplace violence, including homicide, for ages.  The great majority of homicides at work - 75% or so - are routinely committed during armed robberies.  In the 1980s a different sort of workplace homicide captured the public imagination - workplace mass murder.  In 1986 postal worker Patrick Sherrill single-handedly inspired the unfortunate phrase "going postal" when he murdered 14 co-workers.  Then in 1988 Richard Farley shocked the world, perhaps especially those of us living and working in the "Silicon Valley," when he went on his infamous rampage at ESL.  Since then there have been mass killings at other businesses, on commuter trains, in schools, and even on military bases.  While much less common than other sorts of workplace  killings, workplace mass murder committed by a disgruntled employee grabs the 24 hour news cycle by the throat every time it occurs.

This week Caroline Hamilton wrote about killings perpetrated by Omar Thornton at Hartford Distributors on her Riskwatch blog

I responded:

As we come to grips with the tragedy at Hartford Distributors it’s important not to conflate injuries due to workplace violence, workplace homicide, and workplace mass murder.

Most INJURIES due to workplace violence occur in hospitals, specifically in mental health care settings.

The great majority of workplace HOMICIDES occur during robberies of retail establishments – especially at night, and of service providers – especially cab drivers. Of the 7606 persons killed at work between 1997 and 2008, 5809 were killed by “robbers or other assailants.”

We should be careful not to let lurid media coverage of these tragedies give us a false impression as to their frequency or severity. Depending on whose numbers you choose the number of workplace homicide between 1980 and 2008 seem to have remained relatively constant (Over the same interval the working population has increased which might be expected to reduce the rate).

1980-1989: 7603 total (760 per yr)

1980-1992: 9937 total (764 per yr)

1993-2002: 8148 total (815 per yr)

1997-2008: 7606 total (633 per yr)

Remember, year to year 75% of all these killings occurred during robberies. The balance was perpetrated by work associates, relatives, and other personal acquaintances.

Your statement “It makes me wonder if the workplace violence statistics from 2008 until now may be such a large increase, that has been either underreported or even held from publication!” strikes me as alarmist. Federally provided numbers regarding such incidents routinely lag a year or two due to the realities of data collection and publication. We need not attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by our federal bureaucracies.

As for Patrick Fiel’s opinions, unless he has inside knowledge of the precise situation and decision-making process at Hartford Distributors I respectfully submit it is premature for him to comment on the situation, or be quoted as an authority in this case.

Mr. Fiel’s suggestion that terminations should be conducted somewhere other than the office is an interesting notion. In over 30 years of work experience most employees receive corrective action, participate in disciplinary hearings, or are terminated, in the building (or on the campus) where they work. Of course it goes without saying all but the smallest fraction of these actions are completed without incident.

Fiel states as fact “Obviously this company didn’t have a crisis plan in place, and hadn’t done a risk assessment for the facility. A simple assessment might have saved nine lives by setting up procedures for the termination; and additionally, by making sure employees knew what to do when he did draw his gun.” While every business should have an active workplace violence prevention program in place, having a crisis plan and successfully averting a disaster is not one in the same. Unless and until the details of this horrible tragedy are revealed we will not know what happened. Why the rush to judgment?

Today Security Management Daily linked to an article written August 5, 2010, by James Allen Fox on his Crime and Punishment blog at the Boston Globe titled "Workplace homicide: What is the risk?"  Good reading.  Professor Fox has done the math on the sort of statistics I hastily assembled for my reply to Ms. Hamilton. I look forward to following the rest of his series on this topic.

Workplace violence and its prevention and mitigation is a complex issue that will call for all of us to do our best work.