A reduced risk of on-the-job murders

Despite drop in workplace homicides, Indiana shooting shows employees are still vulnerable to 'powder kegs.'

When Robert Wissman walked into a Goshen, Ind., factory and opened fire on coworkers with a 12-gauge shotgun, he unwittingly called new attention to an old phenomenon in America: workplace killings.

Although workplace homicides declined during the 1990s, on-the-job homicides still claim about 13 workers a week. And while there are steps employers can take to minimize the risks, such incidents usually elicit little long-term action, experts say.

"People get excited for the first couple of days," says Michael McIntyre, professor of industrial psychology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. "But how much of it will stick when the excitement has subsided remains to be seen."

Last Thursday morning, Mr. Wissman entered the Nu-Wood Decorative Millwork plant where he worked, and reportedly got into an altercation with another employee over a woman. He left to cool off and returned two hours later to talk with the plant's co-owner before leaving again.

Wissman, a small-time gun dealer, returned a second time around 2:30 p.m. and began firing. He killed the plant manager and wounded six coworkers before apparently turning the gun on himself and committing suicide.

Such incidents aren't new. A 1995 study by the Workplace Violence Research Institute, based in Palm Springs, Calif., found that, every workday, an estimated 16,400 threats are made, 723 workers are attacked, and 43,800 are harassed.

As a result, homicides, mostly occurring during robberies, have become the second-leading cause of job fatalities after motor-vehicle accidents, according to 1998 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health data. Almost a year ago, a disgruntled employee killed seven coworkers at a Wakefield, Mass., plant.

Some employers have taken steps to minimize such risks. Between 1986 and 1999, current and former United States Postal Service workers killed 34 coworkers and six others in 15 separate incidents. As a result, the Postal Service tightened its screening of applicants, created a hotline for reporting problem employees and teaches employees how to spot warning signs.

But a report by Columbia University's National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse found that the Postal Service and other employees should still be doing much more. "I think it's important for employers to take the process seriously and the warning signs seriously," says Prof. McIntyre. "These people tend to be powder kegs waiting to blow."

Employers need to create an environment that doesn't tolerate aggressive behavior of any kind, he adds. That means starting with screening prospective employees and following through by dealing quickly with any employees who threaten or attack coworkers.

Some interventions work better than others. At a symposium in Pittsburgh last year, researchers presented findings from four years of workplace homicides in North Carolina. A barrier between workers and the public proved to be the only physical factor that significantly reduced risk, the researchers found. Employers could also reduce dangers by taking administrative changes, such as keeping entrances closed during working hours and having more than one worker on duty. But other changes, such as surveillance cameras, cash-limit warnings, and security guards, were linked with higher employee fatality rates.

"Many measures recommended for reducing the risk of workplace homicide may not be providing adequate protection as they are currently implemented in industry," the researchers concluded.

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