The Rare Exception

Jennifer Sanmarco was one of those rare women who bucked the odds.

The majority of U.S. Postal Service employees are men. Most mass murderers are men. The most frequent perpetrators of workplace violence are men. On Jan. 30, 44-year-old Jennifer Sanmarco became the deadliest female workplace shooter in history.

Sanmarco pulled out a 9 mm handgun and opened fire at the U.S. Postal Service's Santa Barbara Processing and Distribution Center in Goleta, Calif., where she once worked, and killed five former co-workers before killing herself. A sixth victim later died of her wounds.

Postmaster General John Potter offered his "heartfelt prayers and condolences ... to the families of the victims and to our employees who have suffered through this tragic incident."

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, approximately 800 workplace homicides occur each year, and an average of 1.7 million people per year are the victims of violent crime while working. The Postal Service, like many American workplaces, is no stranger to violence. "Going postal" was a term coined several years ago to describe someone who has gone over the edge.

In 1998, then-Postmaster General William Henderson formed a commission to examine the issue of workplace violence. The commission noted that "going postal" is a myth; postal workers are no more likely to physically assault, sexually harass or verbally abuse their co-workers than other workers. The commission also found that "the level of violence throughout the American workplace is unacceptably high."

The Postal Service developed an approach to workplace violence that focused on employees on hiring practices (background checks, extensive employment references, drug tests, checks of gun registrations, etc.) and on training to respond to and report of violent acts.

While education for employees and supervisors about workplace violence is important and I would never counsel against it, don't forget this one basic fact: Workplace violence most often is the result of a non-employee entering the workplace. Keeping that in mind, NIOSH suggests these strategies to prevent workplace violence:

  • Using locked drop safes, carrying small amounts of cash and posting signs and printing notices that limited cash is available.
  • Physically separating workers from customers, clients and the general public.
  • Making high-risk areas visible to more people and installing good external lighting.
  • Addressing the number of entrances and exits, the ease with which non-employees can gain access to work areas because doors are unlocked and the number of areas where potential attackers can hide.
  • Installing closed-circuit cameras, alarms, two-way mirrors, card-key access systems, panic-bar doors locked from the outside only and trouble lights or geographic locating devices in taxicabs and other mobile workplaces.

A locked door often is the only thing standing between your workplace and tragedy.

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