Violence in the Workplace: It Can Happen Anywhere

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Like everyone else in the country today, I’m reeling with shock and horror at the massacre in Virginia.

I first heard about it at the office. My colleague Malik, our blog mastermind, poked his head in my office door. “Turn on your TV,” he said. (Being a news organization, we all have TVs, though mine is, inexplicably, a wood-paneled antiquity that I turn on and off by hitting real hard.)

CNN, MSNBC, Fox–all the news channels were showing the same reels, of armored police crouching around the campus of Virginia Tech, of scared students scurrying or huddled in groups. It looked like it was snowing, but some of them were wearing T-shirts.

News accounts today are full of interviews with those students, and with professors and administrators who had been trapped in the buildings as the gunman wended his deadly way through. All of those people got up that morning expecting a normal day at work or at class. They expected to write or grade papers and take or give tests and eat or cook the cafeteria food. They met instead with terror.

As I took the subway home, all I could think was: why? With the gunman dead, the answer is almost certainly unknowable. Then I thought, who’s to say the same thing couldn’t happen at my workplace? Is anyone safe?

The answer, in a word, is no, according to the International Labour Office:

Violence at work, ranging from bullying and mobbing, threats by psychologically unstable co-workers, sexual harassment and homicide, is increasing worldwide and has reached epidemic levels in some countries.

The findings are based on a new study titled Violence at Work (third edition) by Vittorio Di Martino, described on the ILO web site as “an international expert on stress and workplace violence,” and Duncan Chappell, “past president of the New South Wales Mental Health Review, Australia, and the Commonwealth Secretariat Arbitral Tribunal, United Kingdom.”

Here’s some small comfort, from the same research:

In the United States, however, where homicide is the third-leading cause of death at work, the number of workplace murders has declined in recent years, with a similar trend for non-fatal assaults. The report says women represent approximately 61 percent of all victimized workers because of their concentration in jobs considered high-risk for assault.

A review of the headlines doesn’t make me feel much safer. Here’s a history of murderous incidents, courtesy of The Guardian of the U.K.:

October 1991 Previously, the worst mass shooting had been when George Hennard drove his pickup to Luby’s cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, then shot dead 23 people and himself.

July 1984 Some 21 people were killed when a 41-year-old opened fire at a McDonald’s restaurant in San Diego. He was shot by police.

August 1966 A gunman holed up in a clocktower at the University of Texas campus in Austin killed 15 people before being shot by police. Prior to yesterday, this was the worst campus shooting in US history.

August 1986 A former postal worker entered a post office in Oklahoma, and shot 14 workers before killing himself.

February 1983 Three men shot dead 14 people in the Wah Mee club in Seattle’s Chinatown.

April 1999 The most notorious campus shooting of modern times: two students at Columbine high school in Littleton, Colorado, killed 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves.

March 2005 A student at Red Lake high school in Minnesota killed five students, a teacher, a security guard, and then himself. Before school he had shot dead his grandfather and grandfather’s companion.

July 1993 A businessman, 55, entered a law office in San Francisco and shot dead eight people, then himself.

February 1988 An ex-employee returned to his laboratory in Sunnyvale, California, and killed seven people, and injured three – including a woman he had been stalking.

January 2006 A woman killed seven people then herself at her former postal workplace in Goleta, California.

March 2006 A loner shot six people at party in Seattle, then himself.