OSHA Urges Bulletproof Glass to Protect Clerks

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Sometimes, Manjit Kaur feels like she has this target painted across the middle of her forehead. Things are so bad, she might as well hang a sign in the window of her Mid-City convenience store that says: "Take the Money. Please."

Since she bought the 6-'til-Ten food mart on Pico Boulevard at La Brea Avenue last year, she has been robbed four times, facing the wrath of the armed and edgy street opportunists who have stuck a gun in her face and demanded her cash and her dignity. Worse yet is the store's legacy: The owner who preceded Kaur was killed when he couldn't open the safe fast enough for a robber's liking, she said.

And so it didn't surprise the 32-year-old native of India to see federal workplace-safety officials calling for greater protections for people like her.

On Tuesday, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced some common-sense recommendations in an effort to improve the safety of retail clerks, who account for half the 1,000 American workers killed on the job each year in robberies.

Over strong objections from the convenience store industry, OSHA suggested that retail outlets with a history of crime use bulletproof glass or employ at least two clerks at night.

OSHA officials, sensitive to criticism from business lobbyists that their workplace regulations interfere with commerce, stressed that the store-safety recommendations were not binding, but "tools" to raise employer awareness.

Kaur was way ahead of them. Last week, she began shopping for bulletproof glass for her tiny market.

"At $3,000, it's going to be worth every penny," she said.

Like many clerks, Kaur doubted that two workers would deter robberies. Recently, she had six people in her store--including her husband and relatives--when a man snatched a wad of cash from her hand and rushed out the door.

But the bulletproof glass, she said, would not only protect her from guns but from the ornery and just plain crazy customers who walk in late at night, brandishing their "What are you looking at?" stares.

Anything to avoid the icy feeling of seeing a gun aimed at your face. "People show me their gun and say, 'Give me the money,' " she said. "What can I do? I give them the money."

Amjad Ali, a manager at a Chatsworth 7-Eleven, said workers at 24-hour convenience stores expect problems.

His shop already has three surveillance cameras, a bell that sounds as customers enter and an emergency button connected to a security response system. And he doesn't believe the owners would spend more money to install bulletproof glass or add another worker at night.

"The corporations are promoting their name by being open 24 hours and [are] not always thinking about the people who work during the more dangerous hours," he said.

Ali said most criminal activity happens between 1 and 4 a.m. when only one clerk is serving very few patrons. Though he usually avoids the graveyard shift, he understands how "some people don't have a choice."

Most clerks had not heard about the proposals Tuesday. But almost everyone had an opinion on how to make their jobs safer.

Cashier Tony Duncan said he faced gunmen several times before the owner of the South-Central fish market put a thick fiberglass barrier in front of the counter.

"The first robbery, the guy jumped right over the counter," he said. Another time, someone with an apparent vendetta against a customer opened fire, he said, pointing to pockmarks in the stucco where the bullets hit.

But in the three years since the partition was installed, the Fish Factory at Avalon and Century boulevards hasn't been robbed once.

Although Duncan feels a bit out of touch with his customers, the partition gives him a sense of security.

"It would be better without it, because people want to talk and find out what's going on in the neighborhood," he said. "I wish we didn't have to have it."

Next door at his family-owned Astro Liquor, Glen Bordenne said he would resent any regulation forcing him to install bulletproof glass. He already uses a drop safe, employs several clerks at night and keeps minimal cash on hand.

"It would be like working in a cage," he said.

Bordenne, who has owned stores in the neighborhood for 30 years, said he survived the 1992 riots because he and his clerks knew their customers and the community. "We talk all day long," he said.

OSHA released its recommendations on organized labor's national Worker Memorial Day, a small irony since few convenience-store workers belong to labor unions.

In Los Angeles, the county Federation of Labor held a memorial service for workers killed or injured on the job last year. The names of 10 people who lost their lives, including three firefighters killed in a recent helicopter crash near Griffith Park, were placed on a memorial plaque.

Union officials used the ceremony to denounce Proposition 226, an initiative on the June ballot designed to weaken organized labor's political sway by requiring unions to seek permission before using a member's dues for political purposes. Union leaders said this would weaken their ability to lobby for worker protection by giving them less money for political advocacy.

Dave Sickler, regional director for the State Building and Construction Trades Council, said political muscle was what helped California's unions pressure the Legislature for state workplace-safety laws that are among the nation's toughest.

Back in the Mid-City district, Ganesh Sing, an employee in Kaur's store, offered another solution to the problem of convenience-store violence: Put bulletproof glass around the whole store.

He said he knows of a Chicago store owner who lets nobody inside, instead filling orders behind a wall of bulletproof glass for customers who wait in the parking lot.

"People never even enter the store," he said. "I like that. It's the only way you're really ever going to feel completely safe."

Times staff writers Susan Abram and Brett Johnson contributed to this story.

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