Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Proceed With Caution

When Using Powerful Terms and Important Statistics...

Security professionals are peers to many across our businesses, all the more so with those who concentrate on environmental, health, and safety. EHS Today is a popular trade journal supporting that segment of the business. As I read "Workplace Violence Claims the Lives of Two Workers Every Day” by Laura Walter in the October 2011 issue I became concerned that the headline and the text conflated terms and incorrectly applied statistics used to describe workplace violence. I sent an email to Sandy Smith, editor of EHS Today, making the following observations.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in 2009 there were 837 workplace fatalities resulting from "assaults and violent acts," a category which included 542 homicides and 263 suicides that year. The claim that "Workplace Violence Claims the Lives of Two Workers Every Day" is only true if we include workplace suicides. That there are half as many suicides as there are murders in the workplace is a story I have not seen examined in any trade journal, but Ms. Walter discussed only "disgruntled employees" in her piece.

Based on averages of data recorded from 1997-2010, of the 542 homicides at work in the U.S. in 2009 75% can be attributed to killings during robberies and other criminal acts. Offenders in such cases are categorized by the FBI as Type I. The remaining 25% are divided between clients and patients (7%), coworkers and former coworkers (10%), and family and friends (8%). Offenders in these categories are Types II, III, and IV, respectively.

Referring to the aggregate number while discussing only Type III homicides perpetrated by "disgruntled employees” overstates the frequency of what most American think of when they hear the term "workplace violence” by a factor of fifteen. This sort of overstatement is not unusual in news reporting, but I propose we will have an easier time addressing these important issues if the debate is not contaminated with inflammatory rhetoric.

I’ve been told by a wise peer "I don't think employees are really concerned about the [workplace violence] perpetrator's classification." I couldn't agree more, especially when the violence is in progress. I know I sound too clinical while poking and prodding at our understanding of these issues. For me the value of understanding the nature of these offenders, their needs in some cases, their motivations in others, and their methods, is to help us prepare to detect, deter, prevent, or defeat them.

I was pleased to receive a prompt and detailed reply from Sandy Smith, editor of EHS Today. Ms. Smith defended Ms. Walter's article, suggesting that the statistic was provided by Dr. Barton. That the headline came from the mouth of Dr. Barton had occurred to me, but I expect professional journalists to dig beneath authoritative pronouncements for more of the story. More importantly, Ms. Smith pointed out that the aggregated number represents a lot a tragedy, regardless how the statistics break out. With that sentiment I am in complete agreement. The 837 violent deaths at work in 2009 are well over the two deaths per day offered in the headline.

I remain concerned that we distract employees, employers, and our communities from the larger (and perhaps more tractable) problems of robbery/homicide and workplace suicide when we let the media reinforce the faulty notion that deadly violence at the hands of disgruntled coworkers is common. I have seen too many security professionals - especially those of us selling products, services, or books - misuse statistics like these to promote a response based on fear rather than sober analysis.

After such an analysis we come up with some important facts to consider. In descending order of frequency:

• Robbery/homicide is a risk to cab drivers and retail personnel, especially at night. Robbery prevention calls for facilities improvements, physical security measures, changes to business practices, and employee training. The prevention of on-duty killings of law enforcement and security personnel calls for specialized safety training and personal protective equipment unlike that provided to employees engaged in non-enforcement work.

• Suicide in the workplace suicide is an extremely complex issue that calls for attention from management, our peers in Human Resources, the Employee Assistance Program, and insurers.

• Workplace homicides perpetrated by coworkers and former coworkers; clients and patients; or family, friends, and other associates is what most people (and the news media) think of when they hear the phrase “workplace violence.” Yet, even combined, these three categories account for the smallest fraction of workplace deaths and murders. If we focus on solutions for this issue to the exclusion of others we will ignore the great majority of workplace deaths due to “assaults and violent acts.”

Here are a couple more facts to consider. First, despite the media drumbeat to the contrary, workplace homicide has been declining steadily over the past 18 years and is only 50% what it was when the BLS began tracking in 1992. Second, when we focus only on fatalities we risk losing track of the impact of 22,720 lost time injuries resulting from nonfatal assaults and violent acts. Third, workplace suicides appear to be on the rise.

Imagine the impact security and EHS professionals might have if we insist this problem be understood in its true complexity and approached as a set of issues requiring a variety of solutions applied across disciplines. We have much work to do. Let’s be certain we’re using our finite resources where they can do the most good.


Guidelines for Preventing Workplace Violence for Health Care & Social Service Workers - OSHA Publication 3148 (2004) http://www.osha.gov/Publications/osha3148.pdf

Homicide: Occupational homicides by selected characteristics, 1997-2010 http://www.bls.gov/iif/oshwc/cfoi/work_hom.pdf

Number and percent distribution of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses involving days away from work1 by event or exposure leading to injury or illness and number of days away from work, private industry, 2009 http://www.bls.gov/iif/oshwc/osh/case/ostb2516.pdf

Recommendations for Workplace Violence Prevention Programs in Late-Night Retail Establishments - OSHA Publication 3153 (1998) http://www.osha.gov/Publications/osha3153.pdf

Revisions to the 2009 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) counts http://www.bls.gov/iif/oshwc/cfoi/cfoi_revised09.pdf

Workplace Violence, 1993-2009 National Crime Victimization Survey and the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/wv09.pdf

UPDATE: As of 18 October 2011 an edited version of this post has been published at the EHS Today Out Loud blog.