Real danger and "postal" mythology
It’s the inconceivable that gets our attention in the clutter of disaster and mayhem coverage that has become a staple of the evening news. We hardly blink at tornado or hurricane footage unless it was a storm of the century. And we may be pardoned for stifling yawns as cameras yet again pan the yellow tape that establishes a surreal perimeter in an otherwise mundane scene.
Now we must have a crime scene that assaults our sensibilities—children gunned down in school or workers in insurance offices dispatched by irate former claims agents. We can understand bank and liquor store robberies and drug-dealer shootouts, but the workplace, schools, churches, and other such sacred spaces ought to be safe.
Then something happens like this: Oklahoma City, 1986. A post office employee kills 14 co-workers before turning the gun on himself. That, and subsequent killings at mail facilities, gave us the term "going postal," which has become synonymous with losing it at work. But if you check workplace violence statistics, you’ll find postal workers are less likely to kill or be killed at work than most of us.
According to BLS workplace data, 73 to 82 percent of the homicides occurred during a robbery or other crime, whereas only 9 to 10 percent were attributed to business disputes, and only 4 to 6 percent were attributed specifically to co-workers or former employees. As study commissioned by the US Postal Service reveals that postal workers are only a third as likely as those in the national workforce to be victims of homicide at work (0.26 vs. 0.77 per 100,000). By comparison, taxi drivers were murdered at the rate of 22.7 per 100,000; sheriffs/bailiffs, 10.7; police officers, 6.1 security guards, 5.5; supervisors/proprietors of sales clerks, 3.1; and butchers/meat cutters, 1.5.
So the math tells us it isn’t fair that postal workers have become poster children for workplace violence. But this ignominy has raised public awareness of an issue that accounts for more than one million workdays lost each year, according to data from the 1994 National Crime Victimization Survey. Those who practice HR simply can’t bury their heads and hope this problem goes away. Fostering open communication is a good first step. So are well-drilled procedures for reporting and responding to violence or threats of violence. Referrals to employee assistance or community mental health programs can help defuse troubled employees, but in the end, the inconceivable may happen.
If it does, HR will be called upon to deal with consequences.
Workplace homicides by industry (Bureau of Labor statistics)
Copyright ACC Communications, Inc. Oct 2000
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