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CAREERS: MADDER THAN EVER

When It Comes to Blows

Worker-on-worker violence has declined, but anger and hostility are continuing problems companies are attempting to control.

November 02, 1998|DEBORA VRANA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While "going postal" has become a common phrase, in reality, violent deaths at work are still relatively rare and are actually on the decline, according to national statistics.

Workers are more in danger of getting killed by a robber than by a violent co-worker during a workday, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Every year since 1992, when the bureau started tracking such data, about 1,000 Americans have lost their lives in violent incidents at work. But fewer than 10% of those cases involved employees who turned against co-workers, according to the bureau.

In fact, the number of deaths at work last year due to assaults and violent acts declined 7% to 856, the lowest level in six years. Highway crashes were the leading cause of on-the-job fatalities, accounting for 22% of deaths.

"Homicides in the workplace are decreasing nationwide in part because more employers are taking measures to discourage workplace violence," said Guy Tuscano, program manager for the bureau's census of fatal and occupational injuries. "Overall homicides are down, and that's also affecting workplace homicides."

Although deaths are relatively rare, reports of anger and hostility in the workplace are on the rise. News of violent incidents at work continue to come in from every corner of the globe and from every type of workplace.

Even the Vatican became the site of workplace violence recently when an enraged worker, upset over a reprimand about a missed curfew, shot and killed the commander of the pope's Swiss Guards, then turned the gun on himself.

"What's going on in life generally, the social pressures, the political pressure, the family pressures are worse than they have ever been," said Lou Tyska, a workplace violence expert with Pinkerton, the Westlake Village-based security company. "These tensions are being brought into the workplace."

For example, Tyska said he worked last month with a multibillion-dollar Southern California company, a client he did not want to name, that already has a workplace violence prevention program in place. But even with such measures, the company continues to have a problem with violent employees, including incidents of fighting, threats with tools and equipment and sexual harassment and prejudice, he said.

"Most people don't equate prejudice or sexual harassment with violence in the workplace, but we've seen that in workplaces where these are present, violence rates are higher," Tyska said.

"Workplace violence is not just a person getting whacked on the head with a wrench, it's these types of sexual and racial harassment that can be most damaging," he said. "It hurts productivity in the long run and can lead to serious types of violence."

In California, 165 people were killed in workplace homicides last year, comprising 26% of all violent workplace deaths, compared with 186 deaths statewide the year before, or 29% of all deaths at work. That compares with 52% of all deaths in Washington and 47% of all deaths in New York City last year, the bureau found.

California certainly has had its share of deadly incidents.

Earlier this year, three people were shot at a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection office in Inglewood during a meeting on worker schedules.

Last December, in the worst outbreak of workplace violence in Orange County in two decades, fired Caltrans employee Arturo Reyes Torres went on a shooting rampage in a Caltrans yard in the city of Orange.

Five people were killed, including the gunman, and two others were wounded. Torres had been fired six months earlier.

In July 1995 in Los Angeles, city technician Willie Woods shot four of his bosses in a hallway after he received poor performance reviews.

Probably one of the earliest reported incidents of "going postal" goes back to 1986 when Patrick Sherrill, a 44-year-old substitute letter carrier in Edmond, Okla., went on a rampage, gunning 14 people to death and wounding six others before killing himself.

The post office has been the location of nearly three dozen deaths in the last 13 years and has recently moved to protect workers, holding training sessions to alert employees of what to watch for among co-workers and posting signs listing danger signals.

A recent Pinkerton survey found that while corporations have long adopted external security measures such as guards and monitoring, executives are realizing it's the employees themselves who increasingly are the threat.

As a result, corporations are adopting more effective background checks and personal integrity tests, helping to keep violence down.

In 1997, major corporations ranked workplace violence as their second-biggest security concern, marking the first time in several years that it hasn't been the top worry among executives.

For 1997, workplace theft rose to the top concern. For 1996 and 1995, workplace violence was the No. 1 worry.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

WARNING SIGNS:

Everyone complains about work sometimes. But what signals an employee is in danger of a violent meldown? A middle-aged man who is a chronic complainer, distrustful and rigid is the typical digruntled employee, studies have shows. Other signs of danger are:

*Constantly blames problems on others.

*Carrying a concealed weapon or flashing a weapon to test other employees' reactions.

*Paranoid behavior.

*Seems desperate due to recent family, financial or other personal problems.

*Interest in semiautomatic or automatic weapons.

*Moral righteousness and the belief that the company is not following its rules and procedures.

*

Source: The Employers Group

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