Violence in the Workplace

The one workplace shooting that would affect me profoundly was reported on the radio one evening in the fall of 1999: Someone had gunned down several coworkers in the middle of the day, this time in Seattle. I didn’t pay close attention when the report first came on.

What I didn’t realize was that a close friend from high school was among those killed. My friend, Peter Giles, died on the spot, on the floor of his workplace at Northlake Shipyard. He was 26 years old. Some of his high school friends watching television that night saw a nightmarish sequence in which his senior class photo was shown along with scenes of his body being removed on a stretcher. Three other coworkers were shot as well, one of them dying hours later at the hospital.

The camouflaged gunman, a disgruntled employee who had been fired from the shipyard almost 10 months earlier for alleged insurance fraud, was arrested two months later.

In the face of such horror, words fail us. I sometimes think of Peter going to work the day of the shooting, going through his routine, one that contained no hint of what was about to happen. I envision him bantering with coworkers — he was such a sweet, bright, funny guy — perhaps making plans to work on his boat later in the afternoon or for the upcoming weekend. The normalcy of it all makes it all the more appalling. I think of his family, and their grieving. I can’t find the words to tell them how sorry I am.

The statistics of violence

It’s hard to realize, while in mourning, that someone you know — a person beloved by so many — has become a statistic. Peter is now one in a long list of the victims of US workplace killings.

The Seattle shipyard shooting occurred on Nov. 3, 1999. Media reports linked the incident with one that had happened just a day earlier in Hawaii, when a repairman marched into a Xerox building and shot seven people to death. A few months earlier, in July, a failing day-trader in Atlanta opened fire on his coworkers, killing nine and wounding 13.

I was reminded again of Peter’s death when I heard about a more recent workplace shooting in Wakefield, Massachusetts, in which a disgruntled software engineer, armed with an assault rifle, shotgun, and semi-automatic handgun, shot and killed seven coworkers.

Is there a way to stop this terrible violence? According to federal statistics, workplace violence is down, thanks perhaps to a drop in robbery homicides in recent years. Workplace homicides have dipped from 1,080 in 1994 to 521 in 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For the friends and families of the dead, however, the numbers provide no comfort. According to this NIOSH study, about 20 Americans are murdered each week while at work, and every week an estimated 18,000 are assaulted. Given these frightening statistics, and our country’s easy access to guns and assault weapons, what can we do to protect the Peter Gileses of the future?

Seeds of violence

Employers can’t necessarily erase the seeds of violence planted in certain employees when they were children. They have no control over the beatings, trauma, and abuse a particular employee may have suffered decades before he or she arrives on the job — abuse that may cause some of them to lash out in rage at their bosses and coworkers.

They can’t prevent a vengeful employee from walking into a gun shop and buying a semiautomatic assault weapon that can pump six bullets a second into a human body.

But there are definitely steps that employers can take to protect their employees from workplace violence. Lynn Jenkins, one of the authors on the NIOSH report, says that there are three protection strategies employers should put in place.

One has to do with the environment itself: offering features such as locked doors, good lighting, and bullet-resistant enclosures for employees who work alone in dangerous areas. Another is having a “no tolerance” policy on threats and workplace violence. And a third is crime-prevention training that teaches employees how to react in an emergency situation and how to spot early warning signs of violence.

Early warning signs that may — or may not — lead to violence include unsettling changes in someone’s ordinary behavior. If a coworker who is generally well-groomed, prompt, and friendly starts showing up late, looking unkempt, and refusing to eat lunch with people as he used to, these could be signs of either domestic problems or too much stress at work. Some experts suggest that coworkers report this behavior to a manager, who can refer the troubled employee for help before the situation escalates.

Red flags

“Red flags” can include paranoia, prior involvement in violence, contempt for bosses and other authorities, holding grudges or making threats, carrying a weapon, changing jobs frequently, and being unable to take criticism or own up to responsibility, according to Larry Chavez, a Sacramento Police Department hostage negotiator. Chavez cautions, however, that each situation is different: People can exhibit one or more of these warning signs and never resort to violence.

If an employee leaves the company with no choice but termination, an employer should be firm with the person, but allow him or her to maintain dignity and the hope that other jobs are available, according to Steve Kaufer of the Workplace Violence Research Institute. If an employee feels humiliated, shamed, or mistreated, he or she may be more liable to seek revenge.

Of course, all the locks, workplace trainings, and respectful management in the world may not prevent some employees bent on killing from actually doing so: My friend’s death is evidence of that. But they very likely will save other lives. Meanwhile, those affected by workplace violence mourn those who were lost.

Further Resources

Workplace Violence Research Institute.


Bureau of Labor Statistics. Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries Summary, 2009. Aug. 19, 2009.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries Summary, 2007. August 2008.

Peek-Asa C. Workplace Violence in Municipal Occupations. Occup Med. 2001 Jan;16(1):109-123.

Carroll V. When domestic violence leaves home. It can and does invade the workplace. Am J Nurs. 2000 Nov;100(11):92.

Workplace violence prevention: one hospital’s approach. Hosp Secur Saf Manage. 2000 May;21(1):1-3. No abstract available.

The reality of violence in the workplace: stop being scared; start acting smart. Hosp Secur Saf Manage. 2000 Apr;20(12):5-8.

Melton P. Violence prevention: myth or reality? J La State Med Soc. 2000 Oct;152(10):509-22.

Edwards R. Prevention of workplace violence: the issue is quality of caring–Part 2 of 2. Aspens Advis Nurse Exec. 1999 Jun;14(9):6-9.

McGovern P, Kochevar L, Lohman W, Zaidman B, Gerberich SG, Nyman J, Findorff-Dennis M. The cost of work-related physical assaults in Minnesota. Health Serv Res. 2000 Aug;35(3):663-86.

Schat AC, Kelloway EK. Effects of perceived control on the outcomes of workplace aggression and violence. J Occup Health Psychol. 2000 Jul;5(3):386-402.

U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Workplace Violence.

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