Let’s Take the Anonymity Out of Workplace Violence

Alison Parker, a television journalist in Virginia, was reporting live from a shopping center in Roanoke last week when a former colleague named Victor Flanigan made Parker part of a much bigger story. With cameras rolling, Flanigan shot Parker, cameraman Adam Ward and Vicki Gardner, the subject of Parker’s interview that morning. Flanigan later turned the gun on himself.

Gardner is in stable condition, but Parker and Ward were not as fortunate.

Among those who watched the grisly scene unfold in real time was Gardner’s husband, who was relieved to be able to speak to his wife while she was in route to the hospital.

Violence is the second-leading cause of workplace fatalities, behind only transportation accidents. In 2013, more than 750 American workers lost their lives in violent incidents. Women are especially vulnerable, with violence accounting for 22 percent of fatalities.

Any business can be targeted for violence committed by third parties, but certain industries are more prone. If your employees exchange money with the public, work alone or in small numbers, or work outside normal business hours, they are at increased risk. So too are health care workers. In fact, violent episodes in hospitals and clinics are so pervasive that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently issued industry-specific safety guidelines.

And then there is violence that comes from within a business’ ranks. When it does, it is often perpetrated by a disgruntled co-worker. That was the case in Virginia last week.

Flanigan was unhappy, difficult to work with and prone to violent outbursts, according to the station’s manager. After multiple incidents, the station fired Flanigan two years ago, and police escorted him out of the building.

Investigators are still fleshing out the details of the crime, but evidence suggests Flanigan felt he was the target of bullying and racial discrimination. His response adds yet another chapter to the ongoing workplace violence story. And we’ve read the story so many times that we’ve become desensitized.

2013 Workplace Fatalities
Motor vehicle accidents 1,740
Violence 753
Contact with objects 717
Falls, slips, trips 699
Exposure to harmful environments, substances 330
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

It seems not a day goes by that we don’t see headlines like “Workplace Shooter Kills Five.” Too often, the antagonists in those stories become public figures, while their victims remain largely anonymous. Perhaps if we could put a name and face with the victims, we would allow ourselves to be moved from passive readers to active participants in finding a solution.

Parker, 24 years old, grew up in nearby Martinsville and graduated from James Madison University. She was dating a co-worker, nightly news anchor Chris Hurst. The couple kept their relationship under wraps, but Parker’s death moved Hurst to announce it to the world in an emotional Twitter message:

“We didn’t share this publicly, but @AParkerWDBJ7 and I were very much in love. We just moved in together. I am numb.”

Like Parker, Ward was dating a co-worker. In fact, he and producer Melissa Ott were engaged. Ward earned his degree in communications and media studies from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He had worked for the station since July 2011.

Parker, Ward and Gardner surely didn’t expect to go to work and be shot that day. Few do. It makes sense, then, that “senseless” is one of the most common adjectives associated with workplace violence. We can’t predict if or when it will happen. But we can prepare now by putting preventive measures in place.

OSHA’s general duty clause requires employers to provide their employees with a place of employment that “is free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.” OSHA can fine employers who do not take reasonable steps to prevent or abate a recognized hazard. But fines are the least of your concerns if an employee becomes a victim of violence. The human cost of pain and suffering carries are far higher price tag. Here are a few basic steps you can take to protect your employees:

  • Adopt a written, zero tolerance workplace violence policy.
  • Be aware of tenuous relationships among staff, as well as other workplace violence triggering events.
  • Teach employees to recognize and report verbal abuse, threats, constant anger and other red flags.
  • Offer employees access to an employee assistance program that includes counseling on relationship problems, financial issues, legal matters, substance abuse and other difficult life circumstances.
  • Understand that early intervention is critical to diffusing violent situations.
  • Don’t let your guard down. One of the most common mistakes companies make is terminating the person and believing  that is the end of the matter, according to Randy Ferris, cofounder of Violence Prevention Strategies. Ferris recommends employers develop threat assessment procedures, maintain a security plan and monitor the person’s online presence.

For more information about preventing workplace violence, visit the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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