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Mass Shootings Are Rare, But Experts Worry That Workplace Violence May Be On The Rise

Nearly 80 percent of the workplace homicides in 2016 were by firearm, according to OSHA.

When a heavily armed gunman stormed his former place of work and fatally shot 12 people in Virginia Beach, Virginia, last week, he was just the latest example of workplace killers taking personal and professional grievances out on one-time colleagues.

While incidents of mass violence of any kind are rare, experts worry workplace violence is a persistent problem and may be on the rise.

Some 2 million Americans experience violence at work annually, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

“And as alarming a statistic as that is, what is even more alarming is that OSHA goes on to tell us that many more cases go unreported,” said Kathleen Bonczyk, an attorney and former human relations executive who founded the nonprofit Workplace Violence Prevention Institute. “So we don't even have a good statistic as to how many Americans are victimized by workplace violence.”

Friday’s shooting rampage joined killing sprees at the Washington Navy Yard in 2013 and Ft. Hood, Texas, in 2009 as among the worst workplace violence events of the last decade. It also echoed recent high-profile shootings in the mid-Atlantic region, including thedeadly shooting at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, in June of 2018, and another at a Rite Aid distribution center in northeast Maryland in September.

In 2016, there were 500 workplace homicides nationwide — the highest total since 2010 — accounting for 10 percent of all fatal occupational injuries that year, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Killings by firearm accounted for nearly 80 percent of those slayings.

In Virginia alone, there were 82 incidents of workplace homicides between 2011 and 2017.

A ‘Way Out’

The motives of the Virginia Beach shooter have not yet been identified. Shortly before launching the attack, the nine-year employee of the city wrote a brief letter offering his resignation, citing “personal reasons” for his two weeks’ notice.

Johnny Taylor, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, says that incidents like these are often preceded by a perceived collapse in a person’s personal and professional lives.

“So I'm having a hard time at home, and then I have a hard time with my boss,” Taylor said. “Those two explode and it's just — that's when you see that occur and then the person essentially says, ‘This is my way out.’”

The best way to prevent these sort of events, Taylor says, is for human relations personnel and management to identify early on potential red flags in employee behavior.

Perpetrators of active shooting incidents often display “concerning behaviors” before their attack, according to a 2018 FBI report on the behavior of “active shooters,” which the Bureau defines as “an individual (or individuals) actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.”

These behaviors include recklessness, violent media usage, changes in hygiene and weight, impulsivity, firearm behavior, and physical aggression. The FBI found that in more than half the cases where “concerning behaviors” were displayed, the first behavior was reported over two years before the shooter carried out their attack.

“What we can do is create a culture where the organization is constantly vigilant,” Taylor said, “so that people are looking for those things that indicate that this person might pose a risk to the workplace.”

Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.