Tragedy Turns Attention to Workplace Violence

Five faculty members were among the 32 people murdered April 16 on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. The Virginia Tech massacre has renewed the focus on whether employers can and should do more to reduce the likelihood of violence at the workplace, especially in a low-risk occupational setting.

In an interview with OccupationalHazards.com, Chris McGoey, a workplace violence expert based in California, said that as a result of the tragic events, people have voiced their concerns about workplace violence at schools and a a few even have proposed that school teachers wear bullet-proof vests while teaching classes.

While such a suggestion might be a bit extreme, McGoey said that some high-risk workplaces – such as banks, gas stations and post offices – are more vulnerable to workplace violence, as they are places criminals stake out to steal money. Prisons and juvenile detention centers also are obvious places, as these places are where criminals are housed.

McGoey said that it's easier to come up with prevention strategies for such high-risk targets.

However, in low-risk workplace settings such as offices or sprawling campuses – where the criminal's motive likely is more personal – it is nearly impossible to come up with effective prevention strategies, as it is difficult to determine when and where a worker or student will go on a violent rampage.

In these types of work environments, McGoey asserted, to institute similar safeguards such as the ones put in place in banks and prisons would violate employees' civil liberties.

“There is no way you can put a system in place,” McGoey said. “In the case of a college campus, you would need to convert it into a prison-like setting to make sure that something like this is not going to happen.”

Workplace Violence Not a Rare Occurrence

Workplace violence is not a rarity, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In 2006, BLS reported that 95 percent of the 7.1 million U.S. employers reported at least one act of some type of workplace violence, which can include anything from assault and armed robbery to homicide.

In addition, a 2004 USA Today analysis indicated that an average of 25 people per week are injured and one person per week dies from workplace violence.

In the case of preventing violence at schools, Steve Kaufer, a security expert based in Southern California, suggested to OccupationalHazards.com that high school teachers and college professors are often the first ones to assess if students displays any changes of behavior or if they come into the classroom with abnormal behavior to begin with.

“Teachers have a unique opportunity to talk to their students” Kaufer said. “If something appears to be troubling them, they can find out what's going on and once they have done that, they can report it to school officials who can take the correct course of action.”

Although workplace violence prevention at schools might be a complex task, McGoey noted that other low-risk occupational setting such as offices should adopt a zero tolerance against employee-to-employee violence in the workplace.

“Key mangers should be trained to detect the early-warning signs and how to handle them. A system needs to be in place where complaints are received and investigated,” McGoey says on his Web site. “A clearly defined and articulated workplace violence policy is important, along with a fair and even-handed discipline procedure for those would don't follow the rules.”

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