Coping With Working Under the Gun, Literally


Violence in the workplace is much in the news.

In Elmira, N.Y., a postal worker was arrested recently on charges he threatened to bring a rocket launcher to work.

In Inglewood, two Department of Agriculture employees were slain during a meeting held to discuss work schedules, allegedly shot by a colleague who later killed himself.

Even the Vatican, thought to be immune from the stresses of secular life, became the site of a workplace-related homicide when an enraged subordinate, reportedly bitter over a reprimand for missing curfew, shot and killed the commander of the pope's Swiss Guards, and the commander's wife, and then turned the gun on himself.

The concern about "going postal" has been part of the culture since 1986, when Patrick Henry Sherrill, a 44-year-old substitute letter carrier in Edmond, Okla., went on a rampage, gunning 14 co-workers to death and wounding six others before killing himself.

Murder now has surpassed machine-related injuries as the second leading cause of occupational death in the United States, after job-related car and truck accidents.

But statistics show that workers are more in danger of getting killed by a robber than an aggrieved co-worker. Every year since 1992, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 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.

Like airline crashes, incidents of workers going postal are still relatively rare. And like plane accidents, workplace violence tends to frighten people in a very personal way. Mindful of public concern, government agencies and private companies are training managers how to spot trouble and defuse workplace tensions before somebody gets hurt or killed.

"Homicide, after all, is a final act--but how many near misses are there?" says Dr. Stephen Heidel, a San Diego psychiatrist whose specialty is occupational-related mental health services. "There can be a lot of hostility, a lot of intimidation that make a workplace uncomfortable. It behooves companies to take this seriously."

The post office, site of nearly three dozen deaths in the last 13 years, has taken the lead to protect workers from outraged colleagues or aggrieved family members.

Officials created an eight-hour course for postmasters, managers and other senior employees that focuses on recognizing warning signs of violence, as well as threat-assessment teams that respond to potentially dangerous situations before they get out of hand.

The teams are "in every postal district, with professionals in mental health, human resources, labor, medical people," Heidel says.

The U.S. Postal Service is not alone in efforts to teach management new tricks of detection and diplomacy.

The Office of Personnel Management, which oversees workplace management for 1.9 million civilian federal workers, has circulated a handbook stressing ways to identify the warning signs of violence. At the same time, the agency urges managers and workers to keep their perspective, warning that "undue anxiety about the 'office gunman' can stand in the way of identifying more significant, but less dramatic, risk factors such as poorly lighted parking lots or gaps in employee training programs."

At the Agriculture Department's animal and plant health inspection service, managers established a conflict prevention and resolution program two years ago.

Some managers also seek to identify potential troublemakers by looking for certain attributes. This "profiling" process finds, for instance, that high-risk individuals include men in their mid-30s with a history of violence, weapons possession, substance abuse or psychosis, who have made threats.

But the risk in this approach is that "just because a male is in his mid-30s and owns a hunting rifle doesn't mean he is a risk for violence," says Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, a New York psychiatrist and president of WorkPsych Associates.

Heidel believes strongly that every organization should treat every threat, "no pun intended, dead seriously."

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