Office safety under fire: Workplace homicides are still rare
Sunday Forum/by James Fox and Jack Levin

Sunday, December 31, 2000

A cloud of sadness and anxiety hangs over the Boston area in the aftermath of last Tuesday's tragic shooting at a Wakefield office building that claimed the lives of seven employees of Edgewater Technology.

The carnage, larger in body count than any rampage in Massachusetts history, has put a damper on the holiday season, not just for those who knew the victims but for thousands of others whose sense of safety and security has been rudely shaken.

After all, Edgewater Technology was essentially no different than most of the businesses that surround the city. If terror could strike there, it could strike anywhere, and at any time, even the day after Christmas.

The fear arising out of the Wakefield bloodbath has been heightened by disturbing news reports - in both print and electronic media - about some alarming statistics on workplace violence and chilling descriptions of the typical profile of workplace avengers.

As fast as the Internet could carry them, figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics were downloaded, e-mailed, faxed, and broadcast widely, suggesting that as many as 1,000 American workers are murdered each year on the job, usually by gunfire. In addition, it was reported that workplace violence is now the second leading cause of employment-related fatalities.

The message was painfully clear: You had better watch out, because the next mass murderer may be working in your office!

A better understanding of these workplace murder rates is sorely needed.

The vast majority of the incidents involve robberies - taxicab holdups, convenience store stickups and assaults upon police and security officers. Many others stem from domestic disputes that spill over into the office suite. The least common form of workplace homicide, claiming fewer than 100 victims per year, are the murderous acts of disgruntled employees and ex-employees seeking revenge over work-related issues.

The term ``epidemic,'' which has been used to describe the problem of workplace violence and murder, is more hyperbole than reality.

By no means do we wish, of course, to trivialize or deny the pain and suffering of the Wakefield seven or their friends and families. The devastation is unfathomable. Yet we also need to keep in perspective the level of risk.

The few dozen people slain each year at the hands of embittered employees are a tiny fraction of the millions of Americans who apparently put their lives on the line every day at the office. Actually, the likelihood of becoming a victim is literally less than one in a million. In fact, American workers are far more likely to be killed while commuting to the job in a highway pileup than to be gunned down by the seemingly quiet guy at the next desk.

If we lived in California, Florida or Texas, rather than Massachusetts, there might be something more to worry about at the office. These sunbelt states have more than their share of mass killings; they also have large numbers of transients, newcomers and migrants - rootless individuals who may have relocated hundreds if not thousands of miles from home for a new beginning or a last resort. Unfortunately, when times get tough, they no longer have friends and family around to offer support and encouragement. Getting even with an AK-47 or an AK-47 lookalike may seem to them like the only way out of a hopeless situation.

Whatever the risk to the work force in the Boston region, many of us are concerned because Michael McDermott, the odd and reclusive man charged with seven counts of first-degree murder, is not all that different from countless others who labor in office buildings around the area.

McDermott has been described as ``bookish,'' a geek who spent all of his time behind a computer monitor. But is he so unlike many others we encounter who pound keyboards from 9 to 5, day after day?

With indications of a recession on the horizon, concerns about corporate downsizing, company layoffs, bankruptcies and factory closings may increase the level of stress and despair in the American workplace. How then can we protect ourselves against the possibility that more beleaguered workers will turn their offices into battle zones?

Whatever steps we take to combat workplace violence should not be driven by hysteria, especially in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy. We must come to terms with the small risk of workplace murder in the same way we tolerate the occasional deaths from plane crashes or tornadoes. As with other catastrophes, we should react in a sound and rational way to the Wakefield tragedy.

One lesson is that we all need to make greater efforts to reach out to co-workers and neighbors in order to combat the true epidemic of loneliness and isolation.

Of course, we could conceivably reduce the risk of workplace homicide down virtually to zero through some draconian measures: by transforming office buildings into tightly secured fortresses, with metal detectors and surveillance cameras at all entrances; by requiring intensive psychological screening of all job recruits including polygraph tests; by scanning the computer files of all employees in search of violent Internet downloads; by locking up all workers who look or act unusual or who lack social skills as well as close friends; and, finally, by strictly prohibiting private ownership of all guns. We're not about to do any of these things because we value our personal freedoms. They need to be protected as much as life itself.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice and Jack Levin is the Brudnick Professor of Sociology and Criminology, both at Northeastern University. They are co-authors of the  book, ``The Will to Kill: Making Sense of Senseless Murder.''