How Safe Is Your Job? the Threat of Workplace Violence. (Psychology)

By Miller, Laurence | USA TODAY, March 2002 | Go to article overview

How Safe Is Your Job? the Threat of Workplace Violence. (Psychology)


Miller, Laurence, USA TODAY


"Changes in the American workplace have created fertile ground for breeding discontent and potential violence."

A DISGRUNTLED [pick one: postal worker, law client, insurance claimant, store customer, hospital patient, factory worker] stormed into a place of business yesterday, killing six people before turning the gun on himself. Film at 11." You've heard this one before. Often, the lead story is followed by interviews with coworkers or associates whose comments almost invariably follow one of two main themes:

"He was always a little strange, you know, quiet. Kept to himself a lot, didn't get along with too many people, but came in, did his job, and never caused any real trouble. Certainly, nobody figured him for the violent type. Man, we didn't see this one coming." Or: "Damnit, I knew it was just a matter of time till something like this happened. This guy was bad news, a ticking bomb, and we all knew it. But there were no precautions or any real kind of discipline at all. We tried to tell management, but they just got annoyed, said there was nothing they could do, and told us not to stir up trouble. When he finally snapped, we were sitting ducks."

Most traumas I deal with in my clinical and forensic psychology practice strike suddenly and without warning or control. In those cases, the emphasis is on treating the victims, survivors, and their families after the fact. However, in virtually no other high-risk area is education, training, planning, and prevention so vital as in the case of workplace violence. In many cases, you can see this one coming and you can do something about it.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health reports that homicide is the second-leading cause of death in the workplace. Murder is the number-one workplace killer of women and the third-leading cause of death for men, after motor vehicle accidents and machine-related fatalities. The majority of workplace homicides are committed by firearms. For every actual killing, there are anywhere from 10 to 100 sublethal acts of violence committed at work.

According to Michael Mantell and Steve Albrecht in Ticking Bombs: Defusing Violence in the Workplace, the cost of workplace violence for American businesses runs more than $4,000,000,000 annually, including lost work time, employee medical benefits, and legal expenses. Additional costs of workplace violence include replacing lost employees and retraining new ones, decreased productivity, higher insurance premiums, raised security costs, bad publicity, lost business, and expensive litigation.

While demographics suggest that the majority of workplace violence is committed by strangers--robbers, disaffected clients and/or customers, etc.--the news media tend to focus attention on acts of lethal aggression committed by coworkers. That is because there is an almost visceral fear we all have of someone we see and talk with every day--someone we thought we knew--suddenly turning into a demon of destruction.

Joseph Kinney, executive director of the National Safe Workplace Institute, warns in Violence at Work: How to Make Your Company Safer for Employees and Customers that current and future generations of workers will continue to have less emotional maturity, greater feelings of unearned entitlement, poorer social skills, little experience in nonviolent conflict resolution, less respect for older generations, a lower attention span, poorer self-discipline, and higher rates of violence. The newly emerging young workforce is ill-equipped for the world of work, work culture, and work ethic. High turnover encouraged by low wages and poor management reinforces the impression that everyday work is for "chumps," and further denigrates loyalty and authority.

Kinney points out that, for the past 20 years, people have been bombarded by the egocentric message that all personal problems are caused by "society." Individuals are not responsible for their actions, and all blame is externalized. …

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