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Violence in the workplace

September 25, 1998

4 Min Read
Violence in the workplace

When Daniel S. Marsden walked back into Omni Plastics Inc. on June 5, 1997, and began a shooting rampage that left two of his coworkers dead and four others injured--including a salesman for a supplier--no one would have predicted it. An argument earlier that morning at the Santa Fe Springs, CA custom molding plant triggered Marsden, a first article inspector, to get a 9-mm semiautomatic pistol from his car and return in a rage. Marsden killed himself with the pistol off-site a few hours later.

It's one of those topics no company owner or manager likes to think about, yet violence in the workplace is becoming an increasingly serious threat. And it's not just at convenience stores or postal facilities anymore. In fact, between 1980 and 1992, nearly 10,000 homicides occurred in the workplace, with 6.5 percent of those in a manufacturing setting. The number of workplace homicides began increasing in the 1990s. In 1995, according to a report issued by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), 11 percent of all workplace deaths among males were due to homicide. Among females, it was 4.9 percent.

The fallout from an incident like this is difficult to calculate, but Anthony Baron of the Baron Center Inc. in San Diego says that although employees eventually heal, people are never the same after experiencing violence in what was perceived as a safe place. Baron is a psychologist and leading authority on workplace violence and is the author of three books on the subject. He is also working with Omni Plastics to help the company recover from the devastation of that day in June. Company officials at Omni declined to comment for this article, deferring to Baron instead.

"A company never goes back to normal," says Baron. "Instead, a new normalcy is created after an incident such as this."

In another incident, it's been more than three years since an angry worker entered his place of employment, Vaupell Industrial Plastics, a custom molder in Seattle, taking various groups of employees hostage before finding president Fred Tompkins, and holding him at gun point for 4 hours. Tompkins and the employees of Vaupell were lucky. The angry employee gave up without incident and no one was injured.

"I've evidenced no lingering visible effects of this incident," says Tompkins, "and I've not had any problems. I knew this individual well enough that I didn't feel threatened by him." Tompkins provided counseling for those employees involved. The one female employee who was traumatized most by the incident is still an employee of the company and doing well, he reports.

Because acts of this nature are random, they are difficult to predict. However, Baron says there are certain "predictive elements" that employers can watch for. Those include the psychotic or paranoid personality that is out of touch with reality and that hears voices, believes people are talking about him or calling him names.

Baron says this describes Marsden, an individual predisposed to aggressiveness who perceived a hostile environment at work even though there was no basis in reality for those types of feelings. "Omni is a good company with good leadership," comments Baron. "Marsden was predisposed to aggressiveness."

Other predictable indicators are chemical dependency, a person with a history of violence that includes a record of domestic abuse problems or who sees violence as an acceptable means of settling disputes, a person with a strong external locus of control who tends to blame others for his/her problems, and severe or bi-polar depression.

Baron says that there are things management can do to be proactive in addressing workplace violence. First and foremost, develop a policy regarding zero tolerance for threats in the workplace. In almost every incidence he's studied, there were threats made first.

Next, implement a training program for management and supervisory personnel, focusing on how to handle employees who display a tendency toward potential violence, how to handle an emotionally enraged employee or customer, how to report the incident, and what to do when it happens. "OSHA believes that training is the cornerstone to minimizing incidents," says Baron.

Third, organize a crisis management team. This team oversees training and threat assessment, and in the event of a critical incident, the team oversees the counseling program. "In essence, team members become the resource experts in case of violence," Baron adds.

And lastly, every company needs to develop a relationship with resources to assist them in the event of an act of violence, including the police department, a clinical group, and a public relations person. Why public relations? "The press will focus a great deal on a critical incident," says Baron. "You'll [the company's owner or management] either come out a victim or a villain. If you look like the villain, you'll pay three to four times more in costs for postincident recovery."

"Omni is healing, but it will never be what it was," says Baron. "But, in many ways employees can grow stronger as a family, despite this terrible tragedy."

For more information on how to establish a violence prevention program to reduce incidences of workplace violence, call (800) 356-4674 for the OSHA booklet "Violence in the Workplace." Or to obtain information from the Baron Center, write Anthony Baron at 10299 Scripps Trail, Suite 122, San Diego, CA 92131, or call (800) 391-4267 or fax, (619) 549-0363.

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