Officials say the Half Moon Bay shootings in Northern California Monday that left seven dead was likely an act of workplace violence by a “disgruntled worker.”
“The Mountain Mushroom Farm, the first location, is where the subject was employed,” San Mateo County Sheriff Christina Corpus said Tuesday. “It appears this person snapped and took measures into his own hands, and unfortunately innocent lives were lost.”
Of the 5,190 fatal work injuries recorded in the U.S. in 2021, 481 (9%) were intentional injuries by another person, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a 23% spike from 2020 and up 6% from 2019.
While it’s difficult to predict who would commit a mass shooting, experts say there are steps employers can take to help mitigate the risks of workplace violence.
“I don’t think employers are doing enough,” said Dick Sem, a security and workplace violence consultant. “There are standards. There are best practices that you can apply.”
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What qualifies as workplace violence?
A July report from federal agencies shows workplace homicide rates in 2019 were about 58% below their peak in 1994 but have started to climb. Rates grew 11% between 2014 and 2019.
But workplace violence covers more than just mass shootings. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) defines it as any act or threat of physical violence or other threatening behavior at work.
Approximately 2 million people across the country fall victim to non-fatal violence at the workplace each year, according to the Labor Department.
“We only talk about workplace violence when it’s a mass shooting. There are a number of incidences where people are fighting at work, or subjected to really hostile and incendiary emotional and mental stress at work,” said Johnny C. Taylor Jr., CEO and president of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “We don’t think about the millions of these incidents that happen every day when you get upset with a colleague and you throw a cup of coffee.”
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Are there best practices to prevent violent acts?
Protocols around workplace violence vary as there are no specific OSHA standards for it.
The agency does lay out resources for employers and says a well-written workplace violence prevention program paired with training can reduce such incidents.
“OSHA doesn’t mandate you have workplace gun shooting safety trainings in most workplaces today, but that might be something you as a workplace decide you want to do if you think there’s a risk,” said Andy Challenger, senior vice president of global outplacement and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.
Sem says a workplace violence program can be broken down into four components:
- Prevention: Instilling security measures and training for employees.
- Mitigation: Recognizing when a person is potentially violent and addressing the issue, possibly through termination.
- Response: The reaction in the workplace during emergencies, such as running, hiding or fighting.
- Recovery: The response following the incident.
But workplaces operate without a plan far too often, Sem says.
“Typically, when I’m called in, I find that there is no workplace violence program. Or if there is, it’s just a one-page checkmark. It doesn’t really address the real issues,” he said.
Taylor says employers concerned about workplace violence should consider hiring security personnel and run active shooter drills with staff.
“It’s horrific, and you’d like to think that the chances are very, very low that it will occur,” he said. But “we must remind our employees that this could happen in any workplace.”
Mass killers typically don’t have criminal records – researchers at Columbia University found just 20% of mass killers between 1900 and 2019 had histories of being subject to a restraining order, arrest or incarceration – but Taylor said background and reference checks can also help mitigate workplace violence.
“We want people to have second chances. But you also need to do some reasonable background checks,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out who we’re bringing into our workplace.”
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What to do when an employee makes violent threats
OSHA suggests a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence that covers all workers and anyone else who may come in contact with company personnel.
“That should be the standard. There shouldn’t be any form of aggression,” Taylor said. “You may have to separate from a really good employee, but you can’t allow the workplace workers to be subjected to that kind of behavior. Period.”
Sem added that employers need to think through how to terminate employees safely. Having a security guard escort a former employee out of the office, for instance, could trigger resentment and other issues.
What other employees can do
As for employees, experts said they should alert management to any red flags they see among their colleagues, whether it’s a verbal threat or a message on social media.
“If you hear something or see something, say something,” Taylor said. “You have an obligation to let the employer know that this was said so that we can get in front of this and de-escalate and de-risk the situation.”
Management and HR professionals, in turn, should be trained on how to address potential risks in the workplace.
“The temptation is to say, ‘Oh, she’s just talking,’ when in fact, it can be real,” Taylor said. “There’s nothing worse than waking up the next day saying there were signs. ‘The person actually told us they were going to do this and we all ignored it.’ ”
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