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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.

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.

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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.

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“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.

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* Employers and employees are helpless to prevent violence.

* The employer is to blame for violent incidents.

* These incidents are random and unpredictable.

*

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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.

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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.

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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.

His study of 14,000 individuals showed that people laid off without having done anything wrong are six times as likely to commit violence at the workplace than they were when they held their job.

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But Catalano says his study shows that the economic recession, which has led to massive layoffs across the country, is probably not responsible for the recent surge in workplace violence.

He bases this conclusion on a finding in his study that suggests people who fear being laid off were less likely to be violent, or to do anything that might lead to unemployment.

Still, the result of corporate downsizing--a leaner, more competitive, more efficient workplace--may have something to do with the disturbing trend, Lipman says.

“We are in this great productivity cycle in America. There are a great deal of competitive pressures. Those pressures are driving American business to require tougher standards and more focus,” he says.

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Experts also note the general rise in violence--including domestic violence--and the proliferation of guns have fueled the problem.

Moreover, Mantell says, psychological studies show that people entering the workplace today may be less equipped to handle job stress than ever before: the products of a weaker educational system, broken families and exposure to more violence on the streets.

“What is coming into the workplace are people ill-prepared to deal with conflict, stress and authority,” he says.

Drug use is another factor that appears to have fueled workplace violence. Eighty percent of perpetrators are substance abusers, says Nika Garrity, a workplace violence expert in Chicago.

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But, notes James Janik, a Chicago-based expert on crime: “They are cold sober when they come in with their guns loaded. They arrive with a mission of what they are going to do. They have it rehearsed.”

*

Given this emerging profile, the prescriptions for prevention become clear. But, “the vast majority of employers do nothing,” Catalano says, in part because employees and employers alike often feel helpless to do anything about threatening individuals or tense offices.

"(Workers) believe it is not their place to report violence,” Janik says. Or, he adds, they may feel reporting incidents won’t do any good, will earn them a reprisal or will lead to the firing of a co-worker.

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Reporting threatening behavior can prevent a tragedy. Individuals who commit violent acts in the workplace almost always warn of their intentions, studies show.

“Individuals give verbal clues,” such as complaining about a co-worker or supervisor, says Chris Hatcher, a San Francisco psychologist who has produced a corporate training film on violence prevention. “These people will give multiple clues to multiple people. But what often happens is the first-line supervisor does not recognize this or does not see a method by which the company can deal with that.”

A survey of 589 companies taken this year by the American Management Assn. found that more than half reported incidents or threats of violence in the past four years. But in one-fourth of the incidents, warning signs were ignored by the victims. In one-third of the incidents, warning signs were ignored by co-workers and supervisors.

To be sure, employers have to move cautiously when confronted with an employee or ex-employee who appears threatening. Companies are mandated by law to provide a safe workplace. But employers can be sued for libel or slander if they wrongly accuse or fire an employee before any offense has been committed.

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Increasingly, however, companies are instituting “zero tolerance” rules at work--any threat made by anyone will be taken seriously, Hatcher says.

In addition to posting more security guards on the grounds, some progressive companies are also holding violence-prevention workshops for employees and appointing teams to handle complaints or threats.

Workers are also being instructed on what type of behavior is threatening and what channels to follow to report the threat. Companies are trying to create a more caring work environment by holding sessions in which employees can vent their frustrations or air grievances.

The U.S. Social Security Administration has a pilot program that was originally presented to workers at one busy New York office.

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“It’s not that we necessarily had any problems,” says John Clark, public affairs director of the Social Security Administration. “But, at this facility, the work tends to be repetitive--a situation where stress comes into play and supervisor-employee relationships can sometimes become strained.”

The program was so successful that employees in each region are being trained to present it at all Social Security field offices, Clark says.

And the U.S. Postal Service, reeling from its highly publicized shootings, has also begun a model prevention program that includes tighter pre-employment screening, town-hall meetings for employees, supervisor training to identify problem behavior and warning signs of trouble, and a work-behavior committee to monitor progress.

Postal employees had come to fear their workplaces, says Dr. David Reid, national medical director of the U.S. Postal Service. “Employees feel more secure now.”

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