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May 8, 2014 at 1:11 AM

Workplace violence: balancing risk with the cost of security


By Michael Kanell and Kelly Yamanouchi / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


Employees gather outside a FedEx facility in Kennesaw, Ga., after a shooter wounded six people. (April 29, 2014, file photo by Brant Sanderlin / The Atlanta Journal Constitution via AP)

Security in the workplace could mean locked doors, metal detectors, electronic badges for employees, cameras and armed guards.

But a typical office is simply not ready for a determined, armed assault — and most companies do not want the cost and climate that comes with that kind of protection, says Darrell Mercer, owner of Mercer Protection Agency in Alpharetta, Ga.

While many companies put a guard near the door or in the lobby, they are often unarmed, says Mercer, whose company offers protection for executives, as well as corporate and event security.

“You can take precautions and you can be alert. But things do happen, unfortunately,” he said last month, a few hours after a shooting at a FedEx sorting center in Kennesaw, Ga., that left six people injured and the suspect dead of a self-inflicted gunshjot wound.

“If somebody really intends on doing harm and they set their minds on it, you just can’t stop it 100 percent,” Mercer says.

Violence on the job
Workplaces have been the most common sites for mass shootings, according to a report last year from the Congressional Research Service. An employee or former employee was the shooter in about one-third of 78 mass shootings the report studied between 1983 and 2012.

The agency said there were 463 workplace homicides in workplaces in 2012, accounting for 10 percent of all on-the-job fatalities.

Yet the number of workplace homicides has decreased since the mid-1990s, says Dan Hartley, workplace violence prevention coordinator at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Moreover, the stereotype of the homicidal employee or bitter ex-worker is in the minority, says Hartley. Three-quarters of workplace homicides involve theft or robbery. Just 17 percent involve a worker or someone with a personal relationship to a worker, he says.

Employers have a financial as well as human interest in a secure workplace. From medical bills to attorney fees and lost wages, “the financial implications after a violent event in the workplace can be staggering,” says Loretta L. Worters, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute.

“As a result, insurers offer employers workplace safety policies to cover such incidents,” she says. “Premiums range from $3,000 to $10,000 per year.”

The most common sites of workplace violence are service businesses, not factories, she says: Government facilities account for 17 percent; restaurants and bars, 15 percent; schools, 15 percent; and medical facilities, 10 percent.

Watching for signs
The insurance institute suggests a host of methods to prevent workplace violence, including guidelines for behavior and counseling for troubled employees.

Jeffrey Slotnick, chief security officer for OR3M who helped write the industry’s workplace violence standard, says there are typically indicators of violence beforehand.

Someone may behave differently, showing sadness, depression, threats, menacing or aggressive behavior, or making reference to weaponry, for example. When those behaviors come in clusters, it should be reported for the company’s crisis management team to offer counseling or other assistance, he says.

“That can go a long way toward prevention,” Slotnick says. “When we get to the response side, in a way, it’s too late because they’ve already made up their mind. That’s why they take their own lives.”

Douglas Duerr, an Atlanta attorney specializing in labor and employment at Elarbee Thompson, also said there are limits to what security can do to prevent workplace violence.

“It would be great if you could have airport security at your work site, but that’s simply not practical,” Duerr says. “It’s not realistic to expect that you’re going to be able to prevent every instance of somebody coming into the workplace who’s heavily armed.”

“The thing to do is to have training on what are the potential indicators of someone who might become violent,” Duerr says.

FedEx has a workplace violence prevention program, aimed at increasing awareness of “developing situations and other indicators of workplace violence.”

Terri Howard, senior director at FEI Behavioral Health, a crisis management company that provides employee assistance programs and other services for businesses and employees, says employers should consider what they would have done in FedEx’s situation, and incorporate lessons learned.

“At the end of the day, we can’t always prevent incidents from happening,” Howard says.

“Sometimes, these incidents are random. Sometimes issues of domestic violence spill into the workplace.”

Duerr says that high-volume, competitive situations, such as fast-moving work, can create a stressful environment for workers.

“You’ve got to plan for how you are going to deal with stress,” Duerr says. And companies should also have procedures for what employees should do in cases of violence and where they should go.

“If a workplace violence incident occurs and you haven’t prepared for it and haven’t thought it through, then you’re going to panic,” which could lead to bad decisions, Duerr says. If companies plan for their response, “then the way in which people react will be much more orderly and less likely to result in an even greater issue.”

More in Workplace Topics | Topics: conflict, HR, management


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