What does the data tell us about trends in workplace homicides?

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, 65% of workplace homicides occurred during robberies. Now, new research published in Injury Epidemiology, finds that this figure has fallen to 46%, with 54% being attributable to non-robbery events, such as an interpersonal arguments or mass shootings. Mitchell Doucette, lead author of the study, speculates on the causes of this shift towards non-robbery related crimes and argues that prevention measures must also shift accordingly.

On February 15th, 2019, a worker, about to be fired from his job in Aurora, IL, brought a firearm into his meeting with human resources and killed five employees. At a press conference later that day, Aurora Police Chief Kristen Ziman describing the crime, stated, “I hate that we have to use the term classic workplace shooting.” This was not always true.

Each year in the United States, hundreds of workers are murdered at work. Firearms are used in a majority (around 80%) of these deaths. While deaths of this nature have dramatically reduced over the last twenty years, the circumstances of these crimes have recently changed

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the public and governmental agencies viewed, rightfully, intentional workplace deaths as a robbery issue, as around 65% of these deaths resulted as part of a robbery. Prevention recommendations of the time aimed to reduce these crimes by redesigning the workplace, making it more difficult for a would-be robber to succeed. Roughly two decades later, we identified that, from 2011 to 2015, around 46% of workplace homicides were committed as part of a robbery, a 29% decrease.

Using data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistic’s Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, we identified perpetrator type as well as the circumstance and motivation around these crimes, reviewing deaths of this nature from 2011 to 2015. We used narrative text fields for analysis, which provided detailed accounts of the circumstances surrounding each workplace death. We also identified how perpetrators accessed their firearms.

We suspect that the change in workplace homicide circumstance may be in part due to an increase in firearm exposure.

The results of our investigation, published in Injury Epidemiology, found workplace homicides committed by firearms are no longer majority committed by robbers. In fact, during our time period, 54% of the deaths occurred as part of a non-robbery event, such as an interpersonal argument or argument over work performance, intimate personal violence, or a mass shooting. Moreover, the percent of robbery deaths decreased each year of the study, indicating a slow but steady decrease. In 2011, robbery deaths accounted for 51% of all workplace homicides; in 2015, they accounted for 41%.

We also discovered that, among non-robbery events, not all perpetrators were armed at the time of violence. Perpetrators left the scene of the crime, often after an argument occurred, and returned with a firearm, intent on killing those whom they argued with. Other times, perpetrators accessed their firearms from their car or other locations within the workplace. This was the first attempt to categorize how perpetrators accessed their firearms as part of workplace homicides.

We suspect that the change in workplace homicide circumstance, moving from robbery to non-robbery motivated crimes, may be in part due to an increase in firearm exposure. Over the last 30 years, the majority of states (n = 42) have relaxed laws around who can carry a concealed firearm and who can open-carry a firearm. A recent study has shown that states with these laxed laws have greater proportions of loaded handgun carrying compared to states without such laws.

Workers are now more likely than ever to interact with a customer or co-worker carrying a firearm. When firearms are present during an argument, there is a heightened risk for a fatality because of firearm’s lethality.

Epidemiologic research centered on firearm violence is imperative because prevention is not possible without clear understanding. Providing an in-depth picture as to who is committing workplace homicides and why those crimes are being committed helps to identify potential solutions, such as limiting customer and employee firearm access in retail establishments.

Robbery-related prevention recommendations were fitting several decades ago, when workplace homicides were most often a result of a robbery. As the circumstances of these crimes have shifted towards non-robbery events in recent years, so too must prevention techniques.

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