Apr 18 2011

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DC: Recent slayings put spotlight on workplace attacks, rising in area

By Emily Babay, The Washington Examiner.com

Deadly workplace attacks — like last week’s shooting at a Fairfax barber shop, a March slaying at a Bethesda yoga store and the New Year’s Day stabbing at Suburban Hospital — are high-profile but relatively rare events.

But in a distressing trend, the Washington region has seen a sharp increase in job-site killings, even as they decline across the nation.

The District, Maryland and Virginia recorded a total of 39 workplace homicides in 2009, the latest year for which data are available, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a jump from 2004, when the region saw just 18 such slayings.

During the same five-year span, workplace homicides dropped nearly 7 percent nationwide, from 559 to 521.

The BLS has attributed the decline to the economic downturn that forced employers to lay off workers and cut hours.

Experts said this region’s better employment numbers and high-stress environment could be reasons the area’s workplace killings have risen.

“If you have people working fewer hours, you’re going to have less violence,” said Alan Lipman, director of the Washington-based Center for the Study of Violence. “We might see higher levels of stress for people working here, particularly in a time when the rest of the nation is in economic decline.”

In the D.C. region, 69 percent of people cited work as a very or somewhat significant cause of stress last year, an American Psychological Association survey found.

“Whenever there’s a situation that’s going to result in human anxiety or frustration, you’re going to see an increase in the potential for violence,” said Tom Browning, a vice president of AlliedBarton, a security company.

Employees most likely to turn violent are those with long-standing and unresolved grievances, conflicts with co-workers, antisocial personality disorder or another psychological illness, Lipman said.

Still, Janice Windau, a BLS epidemiologist, said the majority of workplace homicides are robberies, like the December stabbing death of a pizza delivery driver in Severn. People who work alone, handle cash and work late hours are mostly likely to be killed on the job by a robber, experts said.

Experts attributed the overall decline in workplace slayings to better prevention efforts. Workplace killings nationwide peaked in 1994, when 1,080 people died on the job.

“There’s an increased awareness and a decreased tolerance of aberrant behavior in the workplace,” said Dr. Michael Heitt, a Baltimore psychologist. “We’re catching potential situations before they reach the magnitude of becoming violent or a homicide.”

But when incidents do happen, the effects can be long-lasting. Lululemon Athletica in Bethesda, where an employee is accused of killing her co-worker last month, says it plans to reopen, but the process will take months. And a recent shooting at an Alexandria barber shop, allegedly by a former employee, has left that community in shock.

“I took my kids to get their very first haircut some 20 years ago,” Pat Dewey said in front of the Belle Haven Barber Shop last week. “It’s just such a very family place. … It’s really very sad that this has happened.

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