The FBIs definition of workplace violence comes from several post office shootings that happened in the 1980s. These episodes, classified as workplace violence, are murder or other violent acts by a disgruntled employee against coworkers or bosses, according to the FBI. This is a specific category of crime. The shock to the public was so great after the post office killings; it raised the public’s awareness of the phenomenon.
While violence in the workplace probably began before the postal incidents, public awareness of the problem took hold on August 20, 1986, when a part-time letter carrier shot 14 people to death before killing himself. This event marked the new media attention phase, but three prior postal shootings occurred throughout America. In 1990, OSHA and various state-level programs tracked employees who were killed or injured in the workplace, but did not track how many of those incidents were from co-workers. The National Safe Workplace Institute began to study and track the issue in 1993, according to Jason B. Morris, president of a background screening service. Causes vary regarding workplace violence and include economic and psychological reasons. (The United States Postal Service notes that the term “going postal,” as of 2000, is a misnomer, because a commission report from the Postal Service showed that postal employees are less likely to be homicide victims than are employees of other workplaces.)
The question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” applies to the media with regard to workplace violence. Workplace killings are media-intensive events, according to the FBI. The question is whether the apparent rise in such events may have been created by the media attention. Either way, the nation was in shock by this seemingly new phenomenon.
Since the post office killings, homicide incidents occurred throughout the country. In southern California, from 1989 to 1997, various workplace homicide incidents resulted in 29 deaths. A Connecticut lottery accountant killed lottery executives in March 1998. A Xerox technician killed seven co-workers in Honolulu in 1999. A software engineer killed seven coworkers in Massachusetts in 2000. A Chicago forklift driver killed four people in 2001. A New York insurance executive killed three. And, in 2010, in Kennesaw, Georgia, a disgruntled worker killed several coworkers at a truck rental company. In these instances, sometimes the shooter has committed suicide and, at other times, the shooter has gone to trial.
Prior to the postal killings, violence in the workplace referred only to getting hurt on the job, such as taxi drivers getting mugged, health care workers being assaulted by patients or late-night convenience stores being robbed. Now that American workplaces are addressing workplace violence—violence among staff—they are finding that the majority of cases are not the sensationalized homicides, but are assaults, stalking, threats, harassment (including sexual) and emotional abuse. It is hard to get data on this type of workplace violence because some victims don’t report it, according to the FBI. They estimate that billions of dollars are lost in work time and wages from medical costs and reduced productivity.
The focus on preventing workplace violence began in 2000. Companies, with support from the top, can implement employee programs that take into account the workplace culture. If signs such as frustration, stress, lack of trust and poor communication exist, upper management should work to correct these problems. While nobody can say precisely who may snap at work, the FBI lists some signs to watch for. Personality conflicts between coworkers or between an employee and a supervisor are potential problems, as are layoffs that are mishandled. Bringing weapons to a work site or the use of alcohol or drugs on the job are not good signs, either. A volatile home situation might also trigger an event. Employees should watch their coworkers for belligerent behavior, threats, hypersensitivity to criticism and anger outbursts
Laura Agadoni has been writing professionally since 1983. Her feature stories on area businesses, human interest and health and fitness appear in her local newspaper. She has also written and edited for a grassroots outreach effort and has been published in "Clean Eating" magazine and in "Dimensions" magazine, a CUNA Mutual publication. Agadoni has a Bachelor of Arts in communications from California State University-Fullerton.