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A Refuge No More : Like the world around it, the workplace is becoming a more violent place, experts say. But employers and employees need not feel helpless. There are ways to boost safety.

August 30, 1994|SHARI ROAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What was so shocking about the incident was that it happened in the workplace. A post office, of all places.

An enraged part-time mail carrier named Patrick Sherrill walked into the Edmond, Okla., post office Aug. 20, 1986, and killed 14 co-workers before shooting himself to death.

The incident marked the onset of a terrifying phenomenon in America. In the eight years since Edmond, workplace violence has become the most urgent occupational health-and-safety issue of the era, many health experts say.

Since 1989, the number of homicides occurring at work has tripled, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, with 1,063 people murdered on the job last year. One recent survey found that 18% of workers said they had been assaulted in the workplace.

There is even a slang term for the phenomenon--"going postal."

Now, following up on requests from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and OSHA, mental health experts are churning out a wealth of studies designed to identify the behavioral and emotional triggers and what to do about them.

So far, the studies indicate that the tactics taken most often by employers--doing nothing or simply hiring extra security personnel--are inadequate. Instead, companies should do careful pre-hiring screening, train employees on how to spot and report threatening behavior, enact policies to deal with disgruntled or threatening workers and try to improve stressful work environments as well as beefing up security.

Moreover, studies show the reasons people go berserk at work--killing, assaulting, harassing, raping or robbing their co-workers, supervisors or subordinates--are much more complex than initially believed, says Michael R. Mantell, a San Diego psychologist and leading expert in the field.

"Steps need to be taken to prevent the increase of violence in the workplace, and one of the best deterrents is to not hire violence-prone individuals in the first place," Mantell says. "Asking the right questions, knowing what profile to look for, and thorough background checks should prevent an employer from hiring a ticking bomb waiting to explode in a company."

While Americans increasingly recognize that the workplace is no longer the sanctuary it once was, there are many misconceptions about violence and how to stop it, say experts reporting on new studies at the recent American Psychological Assn. meeting in Los Angeles.

Among the myths:

* The economic recession is responsible for the upsurge in job-related violence.

* Employers and employees are helpless to prevent violence.

* The employer is to blame for violent incidents.

* These incidents are random and unpredictable.

*

The security business is a growth industry in corporate America. At the Memphis offices of Guardsmark Inc., one of the largest security companies in the country, business is booming at a rate of 12% a year.

"There is an urgency involved now," says Ira Lipman, chairman of Guardsmark and a longtime expert on crime.

Security measures include guards, better lighting, alarms, surveillance cameras and bullet-proof barriers. But Lipman says they advise companies to do more than hire extra security personnel.

"Some people say, 'Well, we'll put a guard on the door.' But then they will not put a policy into effect about barring ex-employees from coming into the organization. They think a guard will solve all their problems. You have to have a policy, a program, a system to try and eliminate threats that can occur," Lipman says.

New studies show that workplace violence often stems from a combination of two factors: a hot-tempered individual and a stressful work environment.

The worker to be feared is typically a male with a history of aggression, Mantell says. This person is often socially isolated, carries grudges and complains of the various injustices against him. He may have a track record of job-related injuries and involvement in labor-management disputes. He sees other people as the cause of his problems. Too often, these individuals also are fascinated with guns.

Employers must carefully address the risks of this kind of employee to determine if behavior can be improved through counseling or a job change within the company, or whether the individual should be fired. Experts acknowledge that each option, particularly the latter, can present thorny ethical and legal problems.

In his new book on workplace violence, Mantell describes the "ticking bomb" as this kind of employee who works in a toxic environment.

The "toxic" workplace is usually highly stressed, understaffed and run in an authoritative, disciplined style with lots of labor-management disputes and a high rate of worker compensation claims.

"It's an environment where people feel management doesn't listen," Mantell says.

An additional factor that can set off an episode of violence is job layoffs, says Berkeley psychologist Ralph Catalano.

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