Safety First February 18, 2011

Safety First – Issue 57

You may not have paid much attention to the shootings in Tucson Arizona for a number of reasons: you don’t live there, it’s on the other side of the planet, or perhaps for you saw the event as just another in a long string of American shootings and violent events that define that country. Sadly, events like this have become so commonplace we rarely take notice.

“Six Die In Workplace Shooting In Mississippi”
“Seven Killed in Boston Area Office Shooting”
“Gunman kills 1, wounds 3 in Seattle shipyard shooting”
“Gunman kills 7 in Honolulu office”
“Gunman in Atlanta rampage kills himself; 12 dead, 12 injured”

It is both naïve and very clichéd to say the Tucson shootings were different; but things like that just don’t happen there. Tucson was home for the years I attended the University of Arizona, the city can hardly be described as a quaint, sleepy college town with its population of just over a half million people, just under 40,000 of those students. Equally, it is not generally associated with big cities, big problems. Contained and defined by the mountain ranges that surround the city, the Santa Catalina, Rincon, Santa Rita, Tucson and Tortolita ranges are a backdrop for a peaceful and profoundly beautiful place. Best known for having the world’s largest solar telescope the Kit Peak National Observatory, Tucson has been coined Optics Valley for the large number of companies involved in the design and manufacture of optics and optoelectronics systems.

The location was upsetting, but what was equally upsetting was that US House of Representative’s member Gabrielle Giffords was simply at work when she got shot. With the exception of drug dealers, law enforcement and the armed forces most of us don’t wake up in the morning and contemplate the likelihood of getting shot in our workplace. Nor do we design workplaces with this possibility in mind. Of course we are well versed in safety and for some of our clients that concept extends beyond what the building codes prescribe. For example Rio Tinto’s safety guideline dictates all workplaces apply the same standard, whether they are an office building or an oil rig.

Many of our designers are also familiar with The Safer Design Guidelines for Victoria, a guide to assist government authorities, developers, designers and property owners reduce the opportunity for crime and improve perceptions of safety. They believe the challenge in creating places in the 21st century is to design a space that ensures we are safe and feels safe without feeling locked in. The guideline is based on a set of principles:

1. Maximise visibility and surveillance of the public environment
2. Provide safe movement, good connections and access
3. Maximise activity in public places
4. Clearly define private and public space responsibilities
5. Manage public space to ensure that it is attractive and well used

Over the years security has become a key aspect of workplace design and designers are experienced in the measures that make our workplaces safe from outside threats, but what do we do to combat the threats from inside? Americans have a phrase that, when used here, gives people a stunned mullet expression on their face. Australians don’t get “going postal” because fortunately, very few have ever done it. The expression comes from a series of shootings in the early 90’s in post offices around the US where workers shot and killed managers, fellow workers, members of the police force or public. As you might expect the post office prefers people to not associate them with mass murder, but despite their protests the term stuck and has become a part of the American gun lexicon.

In Australia we are lucky because the risk of death or serious injury from a workplace incident is quite remote. Statistics from the Australian Institute of Criminology’s annual report noted that of the deaths occurred from homicide, only a handful of those were at the hands of a colleagues or co-workers. The homicide rates have remained relatively flat over the past 20 years. On the other side of the world in America violence is the second highest cause of death at work behind road accidents.

The reality is that the likelihood of getting shot at work is lower if you work at the post office than in other industries. The obvious occupational groups: security officers, ward helpers, guards, prison officers top the list of people who are hurt at work due to violence. Retail sales staff, school teachers and social professionals and those that work at pubs and clubs also make the charts provided by WorkCover NSW.

Fortunately you cannot buy a gun at Walmart in Australia and our ‘laid-back’ nature has helped to reduce the risk of workers here ‘going postal’. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, there are plenty of horrible things people have done to one another in Australia that didn’t require the aid of a gun, such as the case in Victoria of a 16 year old apprentice motor mechanic who was bound, placed in a 60 litre oil drum and then set on fire. You could rightly argue that a bullet to the head would have been more humane. I would see this incident as workplace bullying – is that different to the other incidents you’re describing or maybe the same rules apply?

Only 10% of Australian workplace violence gets reported, which could create a false sense of security for Australians who might be caught off guard and naively think, like I did about Tucson, that it couldn’t happen here. Unfortunately, thinking it wont happen to you is no excuse when it comes to the law; employers are bound to protect the health and safety of their employees under OHS regulation. There are steps employers can take to prepare themselves against one of their own going nuts, grabbing a gun and popping a cap in a co- worker.

In Preventing Violence Within Organisations: A Practical Handbook author Claire Mayhew suggests that attacks don’t usually come out of the blue without warning. There are signs that we can look for to identify what she calls the “ticking time bombs” in our office. The National Institute for Prevention of Workplace Violence identifies 13 red flags to watch for that may indicate a co- worker is on the verge of a core meltdown:

 Employees making threats
 Acting unreasonably
 Intimidating or controlling other employees
 Exhibiting paranoid behaviour
 Acting irresponsibly
 Exhibiting angry or aggressive behaviour
 Showing a fascination with or acceptance of violence
 Holding grudges
 Exhibiting generally bizarre behaviour
 Exhibiting signs of depression
 Demonstrating obsessions
 Demonstrating signs of substance abuse
 Demonstrating signs of desperation

You are probably concerned after reviewing this list. These behaviours are, after all, pretty normal for most of the design industry – we would demonstrate at least 3 of those every day. After spending a few days in our Brisbane studio and witnessing the entire office’s abnormal obsession with press reports of Shane Warne’s mattress delivery and fake, or really in love, relationship with Elizabeth Hurley one could make a case for putting the whole office on watch. Odd as that behaviour is, we must cut them some slack, one can only assume after the flood trauma our Brisbane colleagues need something more lightweight to be obsessed with.

Employers can and should do more than look for signs. Providing access to an Employee Assistance Program is one step, also an employer must take all accusations of harassment seriously, keep communication open and talk to their employees. Other precautions involve briefing senior management fully on all issues and training managers in conflict resolution. Having a crisis management / trauma team in place should an incident occur is another excellent precaution.

Establishing a road map for law enforcement is critical to assist their effectiveness in a violent situation. The map should have contact information for law enforcement, directions to the facility, plans indicating all entries and exits, a list of all employees and a list of any potentially hazardous substances stored on site. The law enforcement map should be duplicated with one copy stored off site.

Prevention is better than cure; therefore, employers are advised to do a better job of screening people in their hiring process by asking questions that will enable patterns to be discovered and by checking references. My previous employer should have done this before they hired the guy who tore the phone out of the wall and threw it at a particularly annoying team member. She deserved it, but a few simple questions could have clued them in: how many guns do you own? Are you a card carrying member of the NRA? Do you have a thing with phones? His answer to all of those would have been yes. The truly tragic part of this story is that a few years after the phone incident they rehired him.

“When we look thorough the evidence after the fact, we often find a trail – sometimes even an ‘obvious’ one. The question is can we pick up the trail before the fact giving us time to intervene and prevent an incident?”

This is what the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency believes. They are working on designing computer programs called “Anomaly Detection at Multiple Scales”. It works by studying the digital traces of our thoughts, actions and motions. Looking for patterns in the data, signs that someone may cause great harm. DARPA are developing these programs to help organizations look though enormous amount of data in hope of applying algorithms, or software to find abnormalities that signal the baddies in the haystack of good people. David Kovar CEO of NetCerto one of the companies soliciting grant money from DARPA, says it is a combination of subtle characteristics that create the perfect storm causing someone to go bad. They believe that with sophisticated means of analysing data DARPA may be able to stop crimes before they happen.

Stopping horrible events before they happen should be our goal, experts say healing the body is simpler than healing the mind. After violent events people are often unable to function, frequently can’t work and turn to alcohol and drugs. Some victims may develop irrational fears and will constantly replay the events in their mind. Memories or simple events can trigger traumatic feelings that cause chemical responses in the body way after the fact. And this is why I would advise anyone with shares in Safeway supermarkets to sell them.


Australian Institute of Criminology Annual Report 2010, Australian Government publications

Chang, Alicia and Watson, Julie; As Shock Subsides, Pain Sets in for Arizona Victims; The Associated Press; January 17, 2011

Cullen, Denise; Work Can Get You Hurt; The Australian, March 8, 2008

Kisner, Scott; Scared Straight; Fast Company on line; December 31, 2001

Matuson, Roberta; Measures You Can Take to Minimise the Risk of Workplace Violence; Fast Company Blog; August 4, 2010

Reh, John; Preventing Workplace Violence – Steps to Make Your Workplace Safer; Guide

Safer by Design Guidelines, Victorian Government

Zax, David; How DARPA Plans to Catch the Next Arizona Shooter – Before He Strikes; Fast Company, January 13, 2011


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