Threat of job violence changes way we work

August 14, 1994|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Sun Staff Writer

For five years, Frank's motto for operating a hot dog stand in downtown Baltimore was "Have fun and don't worry." He liked chatting with the office workers, and stuffed cash in his pocket without fear.

That all changed on the night of July 4, when the 49-year-old Baltimore man became one of the latest victims of on-the-job violence.

While selling to the Inner Harbor crowd after the fireworks, he tried to stop someone from stealing a case of soda pop. The thief started a melee, and the vendor was jumped by a dozen onlookers who kicked him and stabbed him with broken bottles. He was hospitalized with bad cuts and bruises.

Now back selling hot dogs, he has reduced his hours, delivers cash to his boss every couple hours, and has less fun. Although he doesn't mind being photographed, Frank doesn't want his last name printed, because, he says, "I've started to worry."

From hot dog vendors to office workers, violence is forcing Marylanders to change the way they do their jobs.

Although statistics released last week indicated violent on-the-job deaths in Maryland dropped to 19 last year -- down from 25 the previous year and 21 in 1991 -- area business people say they are seeing an increase in threats and attacks.

Nationally, the number of workplace homicides rose slightly from 1992, to reach 1,063 last year.

And there has been no letup in news reports of workplace killings. Early this summer, for example, an ex-airman with an AK-47 sprayed bullets at the psychologists who had recommended his discharge, killing four people and wounding 23 at a Spokane, Wash., base.

In Maryland, a driver was killed while delivering a pizza last week.

The issue is serious enough that it was the topic of a sold-out conference in Baltimore last week.

Eugene A. Rugala, a special agent for the FBI who has been studying workplace violence, said police are just now starting to count workplace attacks. "There aren't good statistics out there" yet, he said. But some surveys show that 1 million Americans suffer some sort of violent attack at work each year.

He told more than 200 businesspeople and police officers gathered at the Johns Hopkins University that preliminary reports indicate that "the problem is really of epidemic proportions."

The cause: "downsizings, availability of weapons" and a general breakdown in society, Mr. Rugala said.

Maryland businesspeople say their own experiences show that street and domestic violence is increasingly affecting workers.

"This year we've had more robberies than in the 13 years we've been in business altogether," said Bill Hummel, whose family business, B & G Enterprises, owns Frank's hot dog stand.

Besides picking up cash every couple hours from their vendors, the Hummels are thinking of arming vendors with Mace.

"This has been a great business," Mr. Hummel said.

But after the attack on one vendor, and a holdup of his aunt, who runs another stand, Mr. Hummel said, "it is really getting sickening."

About three-quarters of the workplace homicides in the U.S. were a result of robberies, the U.S. Department of Labor found. And the workers most likely to be attacked worked in some sort of retail job. Most vulnerable: those like hot dog vendors, who have cash on hand and work alone, especially at night.

About one out of 10 workplace homicides are committed by disgruntled workers seeking revenge. Those killers, who tend to be previously law-abiding middle-aged white males obsessed with their jobs and guns, usually go after managers.

A study of workplace homicides between 1980 and 1989 showed that males over the age of 65 were twice as likely as other workers to die of a violent attack at work. And managers made up one-ninth of all those killed on the job last year.

After attacks on police officers or guards, the next most common workplace homicide victims are women attacked by irate ex-husbands or boyfriends.

Companies whose workers are in contact with the public are trying to improve protection for workers who handle cash, work alone or at night.

And even companies with comparatively safe office settings are instituting counseling programs to calm workers upset about job conditions or layoffs and to protect female workers from stalkers.

At Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., a team including a policeman-turned-psychologist and a former social worker are teaching employees how to protect themselves.

The company is especially concerned about meter readers, who often use keys to enter homes and check equipment, said Joanne T. Hiss, a security analyst for BGE.

"We've had people caught in the middle of gun battles. . . . Our people have had guns to their heads," she said.

Now, the company has marked all its cars, and encourages workers to wear their uniforms, so customers won't think they are undercover police officers, she said.

In addition, BGE is equipping workers with radios, and often won't send workers alone into some neighborhoods, she said.

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