Workplace violence: Know the numbers, risk factors and possible warning signs

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Story highlights

  • Recently fired or transitioned co-workers tied by authorities to violence
  • Such instances of violence aren't new; the subject has been thoroughly examined
  • Taxi drivers, store clerks, health care workers, police officers are among those at higher risk
  • Workers can help by trying to determine if colleagues are acting belligerent or obsessive
In Alabama, a recently fired man walks into a UPS facility he'd worked at, shoots dead two people, then takes his own life.
In Oklahoma, another man -- also just after being laid off -- allegedly heads to his former food processing plant, beheads the first person he sees, then attacks another.
In Illinois, police say, a man walks into his air traffic control center in the early morning, starts a destructive fire, then slices his own throat.
In all three instances, all from this week, seemingly safe workplaces transformed instantly into danger zones.
Why? How might these or other cases of workplace violence have been prevented? And are these events signs of a larger, growing possibility of death in the average Americans place of employment -- where many spend more waking hours, on a given week, than inside their own homes?
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While every case is different, a lot of work has been devoted to try to answer these questions and, ideally, prevent more such attacks from occurring.
Workplace violence isn't new. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, FBI and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics -- the latter of which released a study on this topic earlier this month -- have all studied it extensively, providing statistics and guidelines about who is most at risk and what can be done about it.
Here are some of their key findings:
How many instances of workplace violence are homicides?
In 2013, 397 fatal workplace injuries in the United States were classified as homicides, which works out to 9% of all workplace deaths. (To put this in a little perspective, the U.S. population is nearly 320 million.) People are more likely to die in transportation accidents (which accounts for about 40% of all workplace deaths), falls or trips, or after getting hit by an object or equipment than by homicide.
Four-fifths of the homicide victims died from gunshots, which makes both the Oklahoma beheading and Illinois incident relative outliers.
Is the number increasing?
It doesn't look like it.
While the 2013 data is still preliminary (and thus could go up or down), workplace homicides decreased 16% compared to the previous year. (Suicides went up 8% year-to-year.)
Does it matter whether we're talking about males or females?
Yes.
Homicide is the second-leading cause of death for women in the workplace, right behind roadway accidents. In 2013, 22% of the 302 fatal work injuries to women were homicides, compared to 8% for men.
The sample sizes are very different. Men made up 93% of all workplace deaths, with 4,101 total last year.
What are risk factors for workplace violence?
Here are some things to keep in mind when it comes to the potential that someone is physically attacked while on the job, according to the FBI:
-- Is money exchanged? Then there's a greater risk that someone will use violence to come and take it. A convenience store clerk, bank teller or pizza delivery man are some jobs that come to mind.
-- Are volatile, unstable people around? Think of someone who works in a mental health facility or in law enforcement, where their job partly involves dealing with people who might be prone to violent outbursts.
-- Are services or care to people provided? If so, you may never know whether someone you're trying to help is on the edge.
-- Is alcohol served? A person who is drunk may not control him or herself -- and could hurt someone in the process.
-- Is it a late shift?In a place with a high crime rate? Both things could make it more likely you'll be victimized, especially by someone you don't know. That's because violent crime is more likely to occur then and in those places, whether you're at work or not.
-- Does a person work alone or in small groups? This boils down to safety in numbers. When you don't have people you trust around you, watching your back, you might be seen as a target by wrongdoers.
What jobs are most dangerous, when it comes to workplace homicides?
The one profession that jumps out: Taxi drivers. According to OSHA, they are more than 20 times more likely to be slain on the job than others.
Some jobs -- such as construction worker, farmer or truck driver -- are more likely to die violently on the job in other ways besides homicide. But there are certain occupations in which a higher percentage of workplace deaths are due to homicide, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
-- 13% of "top executives" deaths; the percentage is double for "operations specialties managers"
-- 33% of "business and financial operations occupations"
-- 36% of "legal occupations"
-- 19% of "health diagnosing and treating practitioners"
-- 31% of "law enforcement workers"
-- 41% of "food preparation and serving-related occupations" -- with an even higher figure, 48%, for their supervisors
-- 46% for "sales and related occupations"
-- 66% for "retail sales workers"
Who is likely to be the attacker?
It depends on the job and the situation.
An FBI report points out those responsible for nearly 80% of workplace homicides don't have anything to do with the workplace at all. These may be people who use a gun while trying to rob a gas station or convenience store, or who perhaps try to rob someone they see out working alone.
There are also instances in which one's personal life spills into their job. The Department of Labor, for instance, notes 27% of all violent events in a workplace are tied to domestic violence.
And there are plenty of examples of customers, patients or others lashing out -- be it a nurse or a store clerk or a corrections officer.
On top of all this, there are also those who inflict violence on their co-workers.
"Violence in (this category) is no less or more dangerous than any other violent act," the FBI notes. "But when the violence comes from an employee or someone close to an employee, there is a much greater chance that some warning sign will have reached the employer in the form of observable behavior."
What are the warning signs?
Sometimes, people snap. It's hard to know everything that's going on in their minds, in their private lives, or outside of work that might lead to something.
Authorities say that people -- both colleagues and supervisors -- should keep their eyes open for things like:
-- Actions and emotions: Watch out if a person appears increasingly belligerent, hypersensitive, extremely disorganized or generally has changed his behavior noticeably.
-- Personality conflicts: Is someone angry at a coworker or boss? If so, how is he or she dealing with it? Conversely, one should also be mindful if a person seems to have become obsessed with a supervisor or co-worker, for better or worse.
-- On-the-job disputes: Is he or she upset about something that happened at work, including how they might have been disciplined?
-- Off-the-job issues: Another possibility is that an employee is having a tough time outside of work, like going through a divorce or dealing with money problems.
-- Talk of weapons/violence: If someone may be unstable, it'd be good to know if they have access to a gun or another weapon at work. The same goes with if he or she has expressed a fascination with weapons, 'violent themes" or recent high-profile killings.
What can be done about it?
If you're worried, tell someone -- perhaps a supervisor, internal security or law enforcement. But there's more that can be done. Companies might look at things like:
-- Are workers overloaded or mistreated?
-- Can management be improved?
-- Do they have counseling available?
-- Are people being reorganized or laid off?
In the latter case, police may be called in before and as someone learns they are losing a job, which is exactly the kind of thing that could set off a volatile person. It is notable that all three people suspected of workplace violence this week -- at the Alabama UPS facility, Oklahoma food processing plant and Illinois air traffic control facility -- had either been fired or told they were being transferred.
What are the costs of workplace violence?
The federal government doesn't bother to give any precise costs beyond saying it runs somewhere in the billions of dollars, citing the many unseen as well as seen effects -- from lost workers to public relations hits to the psychological toll on surviving workers. But it does spell out some types of damage, including:
-- Temporarily or perhaps permanently losing a good employee
-- Psychological damage to everyone involved
-- Physical property being damaged, stolen or sabotaged -- and the cost of fixing or replacing it
-- Paying more for workers compensation
-- Paying more for security