In the wake of a tragic workplace violence incident in Cupertino, Calif., where Lehigh Southwest Cement Permanente Plant employee Shareef Allman allegedly killed three workers, Dr. Larry Barton details the prevalence of workplace violence in America, typical warning signs and what employers can do to protect their work forces.
Barton, who holds the O. Alfred Granum Chair in Management at the American College and teaches threat assessment at the FBI Academy, told EHS Today that the most dangerous person in the workplace is “the grievance collector” – an employee who has outstanding grievances related to the people, policies or processes in the workplace. Many of these frustrated employees first share their grievances before turning to violence.
“The vast majority – over 71 percent of the people I’ve studied over the years – communicate in advance,” Barton said. “They tell a coworker or supervisor either some type of suicidal or homicidal ideations. It could be in a blog, in a meeting, it could be to a union rep. It’s typically signaled in advance.”
Media reports indicate that Allman – who fled the scene after shooting his coworkers during an early morning safety meeting, and was later tracked down and fatally shot by police – was described as a “disgruntled” employee. He also apparently had complained that he faced racism at work.
Workplace Violence Prevention
According to Barton, in the United States, an average of two workers a day are killed at work as the result of a workplace violence issue. While that statistic has remained mostly stable over the past 14 years, Barton pointed out that multiple workplace shootings have occurred in several states in recent weeks. He suggested that current economic conditions and exhausted unemployment benefits might contribute to additional workplace violence.
Barton stressed that employers should be aware of workers who may have mental illness, personality disorders, or who maybe involved in domestic violence issues.
“Anyone who’s been a victim [of domestic violence] or someone who’s in a recent breakup, a marital dispute or a divorce … those are some of the cases we watch for,” he explained.
Barton also recommends establishing a threat assessment team. Creating a team of lawyers, security and EHS leaders is vital to workplace safety, he said, because identifying and reaching out to disgruntled workers can make a big difference.
“Most people, if they go to the doctor or counselor, [are] going to get through their life problems. But if you ignore a person who is sharing these issues, you could potentially have a volatile situation on your hands,” Barton said. “The vast majority of people are God-fearing, good citizens, might have a problem and are not going to resort to violence. Those that do [resort to violence] feel that they have not had their reasons well managed.”
Barton is the author of the book Crisis Leadership Now.