When Terrorism and Workplace Violence Collide

When Terrorism and Workplace Violence Collide

S. E. Williams 


The terror events of last week were both heartbreaking and confusing. What initially appeared as another incident of workplace violence with a strange and macabre twist; in the days since, was ruled an act of terrorism.

The ruling put to bed uncertainty as to whether the event met the official criterion of terrorism; however, that measure of clarity failed to assuage the added personal pain and confusion resulting from such an act being executed against a team of people one of the terrorists had worked with for more than five years.

As investigators continue to unravel clues in their quest to determine what motivated the perpetrators, the issue of workplace violence has continued to nibble at the edges of the investigation and for good reason.

Before September 11, 2001, workplace violence was usually thought to be the most violent revenge of disgruntled employees, dissatisfied customers or at times, the result of a domestic violence or stalking relationship that sometimes erupts in the workplace. America, however, has known since September 11, 2001 (as was repeated in San Bernardino County again last week), workplace violence has the potential to cut with a deadly, two-edged sword.

Not only must business owners, managers and employees be ever-vigilant and prepared to face the traditional forms of workplace violence, they are also challenged, to consider the very real potential of the external and now internal threat of terrorism.

When incidents of workplace violence rise to the level of attention of the national media it is received with a sad, ‘not again’ sigh by some; however, many Americans might be surprised to learn the actual frequency and magnitude of such events.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), between 1992 and 2012 there were 14,770 workplace homicide victims. That is well over 700 homicides per year. Other than September 11th, the largest number of workplace homicides occurred in 1994—there were a total of 1080 workplace homicides that year.

The breadth of violence in the workplaces of America is measured in both fatal and non-fatal statistics. An example of the magnitude of this aggression is most evident when 2009 data of the number of nonfatal violent crimes against persons in the workplace is considered. That year, according to research, there were no less than 572,000 non-fatal violent crimes committed in workplaces in the United States—more than half a million.

The Center for Disease Control reported each week in the United States, an average of twenty workers are murdered and some 18,000 are assaulted while at work; however, all occupations do not share equally in these numbers. Sales and service employees experience the lion’s share of workplace violence incidents accounting for more than half of workplace homicides and 85 percent of nonfatal workplace assaults.

The potential for workplace violence in the sales and service industry is followed by the level of risks for those employed in protective services, followed closely by transportation and material moving jobs. Sadly, according to the National Institute of Health and Safety, taxi-cab drivers are at a higher risk of homicide than any other work group.

Although historical data on work place violence is concerning, recent two years have offered reasons for optimism—workplace homicides are on a downward trend. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries there were 463 workplace homicides in 2012, a slight decrease from 468 in 2011. There were a total of 404 workplace homicides in 2013 and that number decreased to 403 workplace homicides last year.

However, mass murders, like the one that occurred at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino last week, though becoming more frequent (and also the crimes that draw mass media attention), are still relatively infrequent when compared to the individual incidents of violence that still occur at an average of one a day in the workplace in this country.

According to the FBI, “It is the threats, harassment, bullying, domestic violence, stalking, emotional abuse, intimidation and other forms of behavior and physical violence that, if left unchecked, may result in more serious violent behavior.” These are the behaviors the FBI stressed, supervisors and managers have to deal with every day.

Since September 11, 2001, the FBI and other federal agencies have worked proactively and aggressively to pre-empt terrorists attacks. Despite those efforts, incidents like the recent travesty in San Bernardino can still occur.

As a result, companies are encouraged to have a violence prevention program in place. The most successful companies according to the FBI, “. . . create an atmosphere of fairness, trust and cooperation between employees and management. In addition, unions are partners, not adversaries, in violence prevention programs.”

The agency also recommended companies work together rather than competing with one another on the issue of employee safety. Sharing best practice ideas and information, pooling resources to provide the best possible training and working together to raise public awareness will help all employees. Large corporations are also encouraged to share plans and training resources not only with smaller firms but with community organizations as well. Other agency recommendations include building partnerships with local law enforcement agencies.

Hundreds of thousands of workers experience violence or the threat of violence in their workplaces every year. According to the Department of Homeland Security, “employees typically do not just snap but display indicators of potentially violent behavior over time.”

Here are the signs the agency recommends to watch for which may indicate a co-worker could become violent. If the behaviors are recognized, they can often be managed and treated. Such behaviors can include one of more of the following: The increased use of alcohol and or illegal drugs; an unexplained increase in absenteeism; vague physical complaints; a noticeable decrease in attention to appearance and hygiene; depression/withdrawal; a resistance and overreaction to changes in policy and procedures; repeated violations of company policies; increased, severe mood swings; noticeably unstable, emotional responses; explosive outbursts of anger or rage without provocation; suicidal; comments about putting things in order; behavior which is suspect of paranoia, i.e., everybody is against me; increasingly talks of problems at home; an escalation of domestic problems into the workplace; talk of severe financial problems; talk of previous incidents of violence; empathy with individuals committing violence; increase in unsolicited comments about firearms, other dangerous weapons and violent crimes.

The Department of Homeland Security stressed this list is not comprehensive, “nor is it intended as a mechanism for diagnosing violent tendencies.” Again and again, Homeland security has advised, “If you see something, say something”.

About The Author

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