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The Forgotten Pandemic

Oct. 11, 2021
Addressing mental health is paramount to preventing workplace shootings.

Recently, I was in Dave Blanchard’s office discussing the 2021 America’s Safest Companies competition. I was listening intently (wearing face masks demands so), but my attention kept drifting down to the front side of his L-shaped desk. Specifically, the frosted glass pane in the middle.

I have seen desks with an open back, a solid back or a cutout. I have not seen a desk with a frosted glass pane before. The main function of such a design, I presume, is to offer protection in the event of a shooting.

Growing up post-Columbine, I have been acutely aware of the possibility of an active shooter situation for most of my life. The prospect has put me on edge and prevented me from concentrating on my studies or work. Sometimes, it has influenced how I make decisions, such as learning to look for the exits whenever I walk into a room. In short, the threat of gun violence has robbed me of my feeling of safety.

While reviewing the responses from EHS Today’s National Safety & Salary Survey 2021 (the July/August cover story), I was struck by a sense of urgency and growing momentum among safety professionals. I got the impression that although the pandemic rages on, more organizations are recognizing that workplace safety warrants more attention or resources and less brushing aside or eye rolls.

Perhaps management is finally offering safety professionals a seat at the executive table. Or perhaps frontline workers are more compliant with certain safety protocols. Whatever the case may be, I can tell that you’re excited, and you’re making your case for safety post-pandemic.

I’m sure there’s no shortage of things you like to do improve workplace safety. But in my opinion, one area that needs more attention is workplace violence, specifically with respect to guns.

For nearly two years, COVID-19 has kept us at home or at least greatly restricted our activities. In spring 2020, elementary schools and universities switched to remote learning. Many employers reconfigured processes to promote social distancing or sent workers home. Entertainment venues, cultural institutions and restaurants limited admission or closed. Despite these changes, gun violence is at an all-time high.

This year is on track to be the deadliest year of gun violence on record. Through May 2021, the number of casualties and the overall number of shootings that have killed or injured at least one person exceeded the first five months of 2020, which itself was already the deadliest year of gun violence in more than 20 years, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive. 2020 saw the highest one-year increase in homicides since the nonprofit research organization began keeping records. Gunshot injuries also rose to nearly 40,000.

Julius Thibodeaux Jr., strategy program manager for the Sacramento chapter of the charitable organization Advance Peace, described the increase in gun violence as “the forgotten pandemic” to The Washington Post.

Workplace mass shootings are a small subset of gun violence, but there have already been a handful this year. That’s a worrying increase. According to a database compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University, there were 13 mass workplace shootings carried out by a current or former employee between 2006 and February 2020—about one per year.

“Now that much of the country is returning to work, we’re seeing an uptick in these events in the sense that they’re now out there because people are back out there,” said Jaclyn Schildkraut, associate professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Oswego, to NPR. “One of the things that we know about shooters, especially those who target schools or other specific public spaces, is that they don’t usually wake up and snap.”

Schildkraut explained that the pandemic and associated lockdowns removed many opportunities for workplace shootings to occur. However, it also gave potential shooters an opportunity to plan. It’s too soon to know if that’s what has happened of late.

What is clear is that COVID-19 laid bare many of the physical and mental health problems workers face. Workers carry those problems with them every time they walk through the door—and that can make it difficult or dangerous for everyone else, too.

The pandemic presents employers with an opportunity to intervene. Employers can offer trainings to recognize warning signs and diffuse potentially violent situations, which are key to reducing the occurrence of workplace shootings and creating even safer workplaces.

A key component of these proactive measures requires a focus on mental health. By prioritizing workers’ mental health and focusing on workers’ total well-being, employers can make it safer for everyone to come to work, perform their jobs and go home at the end of their shift. That’s the kind of normal all of us are yearning for. 

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