Can Fatal Workplace Violence Be Prevented?

Upon hearing of the fatal workplace shootings Nov. 2 in Honolulu and Nov. 3 in Seattle, employers may be wondering what they can do to prevent a similar tragedy in their companies.

Violence in the workplace can happen just about anywhere and could result in workers' deaths. That's why employers, upon hearing of the fatal workplace shootings Nov. 2 in Honolulu and Nov. 3 in Seattle, may be wondering what they can do to prevent a similar tragedy in their companies.

Called the worst tragedy in company and state history, a copier repairman is accused of walking into a morning meeting at a Xerox parts distribution center in Hawaii and fatally shooting seven co-workers. A day later, an unknown man fatally shot two employees and wounded two others at Northlake Shipyard, a ship repair company in Seattle.

Deciding to report to supervisors when a co-worker displays violent tendencies is one of the best ways to help prevent a workplace tragedy, says a violence threat expert in Atlanta.

Unfortunately, many workers will ignore their instincts and disregard their fear of a co-worker possibly turning violent, said Carol Beavers, Ph.D., senior threat of violence consultant for Crisis Management International (CMI) Inc. Workers may not believe that a fellow employee's idle threat may be carried out until it's too late, Beavers added.

"When workplace violence happens, if you ask that person's co-workers, they'll say, "I've known for a long time the guy was ready to blow," or "He was a tragedy ready to happen," she said. "So there are a lot of warning signals."

Unfortunately, employees may not report those warning signs to management for fear of retaliation by the suspected co-worker, said Beavers, whose employer's clients are companies with a potentially violent employee. CMI makes direct contact with the threatening individual to get that person's side of the story and to understand their issues, which are relayed back to the worker"s employer.

Beavers' advice to safety and risk management employees is to work closely with their company's human resources (HR) personnel, because they often do not have training in dealing with workplace violence. "Be more involved and accessible to HR people in the capacity of an advisor on issues of this sort," she said.

There is no known motive for the accused gunman in Hawaii, 40-year-old Byran K. Uyesugi, who surrendered after a five-hour standoff at a nearby park. Uyesugi, a 15-year employee who was a senior customer service engineer, reportedly had a previous violent incident at work. In 1993, he was named in a criminal property damage complaint after he threatened a supervisor and kicked in an elevator door. He underwent anger management counseling.

Killed Nov. 2 were Jason C. Balatico, 8 years of service; Ford K. Kanehira, 19 years; Ronald M. Kataoka, 27 years; Ronald K. Kawamae, 30 years; Melvin W. Lee, 32 years; Peter B. Mark, 19 years; and John K. Sakamoto, 10 years. All were senior customer service engineers, except for Lee, who was the field service manager.

It was the worst mass shooting ever for Hawaii, known for having a low murder rate. Last year in Honolulu, the nation's 11th largest city, there were 17 homicides.

"This is the worst tragedy in the history of Xerox," said Glenn Sexton, vice president and general manager of Xerox Hawaii. Although only four of 150 company employees in the state work at the parts distribution center, additional workers were there for a meeting.

More than 500 managers and first-line supervisors have participated in a workplace violence training session, a Xerox spokeswoman said. This training teaches participants how to identify employees who may be under excessive stress and how to pick up on any signs that an employee may be having problems. However, she would not disclose workplace violence training specific to the Hawaii shooting.

In addition, there is the Xerox Employee Assistance Program. It is confidential and provides an 800 number to help an employee deal with such issues as stress and coping with personal problems.

Rick Thoman, company president and chief executive officer, said that even the best-designed workplace violence policy might not have prevented the shooting.

"We've never had experience with anything like this," Thoman said. "We do have experience with employees going through problems and, by and large, our policies have worked very well with them."

Xerox's human resources department is using the Hawaii Employee Assistance Services' grief counselors for employees and families and will be at offices when workers return to work. Honolulu offices were closed the day after the shooting.

Seattle Suspect Remains on the Loose

The Seattle shooter was still at-large late Nov. 3. A man died at the scene, and a second worker died at a local hospital. A third employee was in critical condition and the fourth in satisfactory condition. None of the workers knew the shooter, reports indicated.

Homicide is the second leading cause of fatal occupational injuries in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bureau's Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries lists 709 workplace homicides in 1998, accounting for 12 percent of 6,026 total fatal work injuries last year.

The two shootings occurred about four months after nine people were killed and 13 others wounded during a shooting at two Atlanta brokerage firms.

"Unfortunately, we've always had people who are unbalanced and feel that they are victims and have been persecuted and treated unfairly," Beavers said. "In times past, they would invite somebody outside to slug it out. Now, with the prevalence of firearms, people can do a great deal of damage in a short time. It's almost impossible to get them stopped once they've made up their minds to shoot people and are in the midst of it."

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