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COLUMN ONE : The War on Workplace Violence : Fear has pushed employees and bosses to protect themselves. Hospital workers disguise their name tags. Unions demand tighter security. Firms hire consultants to show them how to fire people.

March 18, 1994|STUART SILVERSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nobody just barges into lawyer Michelle Scully's office in downtown San Francisco. She keeps her door locked and peeks through a peephole to size up visitors before letting anyone pass.

Scully, 28, has plenty of reason to be security-conscious while on the job. Last July, she was wounded and her husband was killed in one of the nation's worst outbreaks of workplace violence--a shooting spree that left nine people dead at a high-rise in San Francisco's financial district.

A preoccupation with crime has swept into America's shops, offices and factories. Bloody episodes are prodding workers and employers into action, and are spurring government officials to seek solutions.

Hospital nurses and doctors turn their name tags upside-down, or hide them altogether, to avoid being identified by potentially dangerous patients. Postal workers file reports on colleagues who they fear could fly off the handle. Unions now negotiate with management for tighter security much the same way they push for better wages and benefits.

Employers quietly perform criminal records checks to screen out applicants who have had serious brushes with the law and who appear violence-prone. Other firms give psychological tests to prospective hires--despite ethical questions and uncertainty about the exams' predictive powers.

To keep tempers from exploding when layoff time comes, more firms help workers find new jobs. And, in some cases, managers who hand out pink slips are reportedly wearing bullet-proof vests.

"You're vulnerable, you never know as an executive or manager whether an employee will snap and take a shot at you. That's the scary part of being a boss," said the owner of one manufacturing company who requested anonymity.

Since the late 1980s, the number of bloody workplace rampages has mounted, snaring front-page news coverage and fraying nerves. "The safety and security of the work environment is being shattered," said Joseph A. Kinney, executive director of the National Safe Workplace Institute in Chicago.

The latest reminder occurred Monday when three employees at a Santa Fe Springs electronics firm were killed by a recently fired worker who later shot himself to death.

Last fall, the U.S. Labor Department, issuing its first major study on the topic, reported that homicides accounted for 1,004 work-related deaths in 1992, including 144 in California. In addition, the report said homicide was by far the leading cause of on-the-job fatalities for women. Including men and women, homicide ranked a close second to highway accidents as the most deadly workplace hazard.

Compared to the toll taken by ordinary street violence, the number of sensational workplace murders by disgruntled former employees remains small. But those high-profile deaths--along with hundreds more involving such job-related incidents as taxi holdups and police officers slain in the line of duty--have begun to catch the eye of government officials.

Experts blame the trend on the same social problems blamed for murders in society as a whole, especially the widespread availability of guns. They also point to rising workplace tensions fueled by massive layoffs.

Three bills are pending in the state Legislature aimed at stemming workplace violence, including one calling on regulators to scrutinize what all employers are doing to protect workers. Until recently, "when an act of violence occurred in the workplace, it was considered a police matter," said John Howard, chief of Cal/OSHA.

But recent statistics, Howard said, have given safety experts "a lot of concern. It's a brand-new ballgame now."

Likewise, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is drawing up a strategy of its own to curb workplace violence.

Employers, safety specialists and workers are severely hampered in what they can do. Tightly limiting access might make workplaces safer, but it usually is impractical: Stores must be open to the public, factories must receive shipments and police must patrol dangerous neighborhoods. "No workplace is totally safe," Howard said. "You can always have an employee who goes berserk."

The Santa Fe Springs plant was protected by special door locks that could be opened only by punching in a secret five-digit code. That's how the gunman, who had been fired 2 1/2 weeks earlier, was able to enter the facility.

Even Scully concedes there are limits to the precautions that can be taken. "I've played the 'what if' game 100,000 times in my head, wondering if there was something we could have done to make the outcome different," she said of the San Francisco law firm shootings.

Yet, the assailant--who later killed himself--looked like "a normal businessman," said Scully, who is on leave from her job as a lawyer to head the San Francisco chapter of the advocacy group Handgun Control Inc.

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