by Michael Brady
Workplace Violence Claims the Lives of Two Workers Every Day,” I became concerned that media coverage of workplace violence sometimes is misleading. By suggesting that disgruntled employees are the greatest cause of workplace violence, such articles may deflect attention from the more common occurrences of workplace suicides and fatal robberies.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2009, 837 workplace fatalities resulted from “assaults and violent acts,” a category that included 542 homicides and 263 suicides. The statement that “Workplace violence claims the lives of two workers every day” is true only if we include workplace suicides. In fact, there are half as many suicides as murders in the workplace.
Based on averages of data recorded from 1997-2010, of the 542 homicides at work in the United States in 2009, 75 percent can be attributed to killings during robberies and other criminal acts. Offenders in such cases are categorized by the FBI as Type I. The remaining 25 percent are divided between clients and patients (7 percent), coworkers and former coworkers (10 percent) and family and friends (8 percent). Offenders in these categories are Types II, III and IV, respectively.
Referring to the aggregate number while discussing only Type III homicides perpetrated by “disgruntled employees” overstates the frequency of what most American think of when they hear the term “workplace violence” by a factor of 15. This sort of overstatement is not unusual in news reporting, but I propose we will have an easier time addressing these important issues if the debate is not contaminated with inflammatory rhetoric.
I’ve been told by a wise peer “I don’t think employees are really concerned about the [workplace violence] perpetrator’s classification.” I couldn’t agree more, especially when the violence is in progress. But understanding the nature of these offenders, their methods, their needs and their motivations may help us detect, deter, prevent or defeat acts of violence.
Tragedy No Matter How You Add It Up
Of course, the aggregated number in “Workplace Violence Claims the Lives of Two Workers Every Day” represents a lot a tragedy, regardless how the statistics break out. The 837 violent deaths at work in 2009 are well over the two deaths per day offered in the headline.
But I remain concerned that we distract employees, employers and our communities from the larger (and perhaps more tractable) problems of robbery/homicide and workplace suicide when we let the media reinforce the faulty notion that deadly violence at the hands of disgruntled coworkers is common. I have seen too many security professionals – especially those of us selling products, services or books – misuse statistics like these to promote a response based on fear rather than sober analysis.
In descending order of frequency, here are the most common types of workplace violence that occur in the United States:
>>Robbery/homicide. Robbery/homicide is a risk to cab drivers and retail personnel, especially at night. Robbery prevention calls for facilities improvements, physical security measures, changes to business practices and employee training. The prevention of on-duty killings of law enforcement and security personnel calls for specialized safety training and personal protective equipment unlike that provided to employees engaged in non-enforcement work.
>>Suicide. Suicide in the workplace suicide is an extremely complex issue that calls for attention from management, human resources, employee assistance programs and insurers.
>>Other Acts of Violence. Workplace homicides perpetrated by coworkers and former coworkers; clients and patients; or family, friends and other associates is what most people think of when they hear the phrase “workplace violence.” Yet, even combined, these categories account for the smallest fraction of workplace deaths and murders. If we focus on solutions for this issue to the exclusion of others, we will ignore the great majority of workplace deaths due to “assaults and violent acts.”
Here are a few more facts to consider. First, despite the media drumbeat to the contrary, workplace homicide has been declining steadily over the past 18 years and is only 50 percent of what it was when BLS began tracking it in 1992. Second, when we focus only on fatalities, we risk losing sight of the impact of 22,720 lost time injuries resulting from nonfatal assaults and violent acts. Third, workplace suicides appear to be on the rise.
Imagine the impact that EHS and security professionals might have if we insist this problem be understood in its true complexity and approached as a set of issues requiring a variety of solutions applied across disciplines. We have much work to do. Let’s be certain we’re using our finite resources where they can do the most good.