ABB shooting: Economy may play role in workplace violence

Timothy Hendron killed four coworkers and himself in the ABB shooting in St. Louis Thursday. He was involved in a lawsuit against the company regarding a dispute over retirement benefits.

By MARK GUARINO Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor / January 7, 2010

Chicago — The shooting at ABB Group in St. Louis Thursday that ended with four people dead, including the shooter, raises the prospect that the recession could be a strong contributor to workplace violence.

The Associated Press reports that the shooter, Timothy Hendron, was among several plant employees suing the company and its trustee, Fidelity Management Trust, for an unspecified amount over “unreasonable and excessive fees” related to their retirement benefits. The federal trial was already under way in Kansas City, Mo,. and was expected to last three weeks.

Mr. Hendron had worked at ABB, a company that makes electrical transformers, for 23 years.

Role of the recession

The downturn in the economy may be creating more circumstances that lead to violent outbursts, says Larry Chavez, an expert on workplace violence.

“There’s more pressure put on people recently because of the economy,” he says. “More people have faced a dissolving of their whole career. It’s too hard to face for some people. When you have 23 years invested, that’s a lot.”

Although there are no hard data connecting violence with economic downturns, periods of economic difficulty have been linked to increases in violent behavior.

For instance, a study released last March by the Florida Department of Children and Families revealed that the state saw an almost 40 percent increase in demand for domestic-violence centers, which it said was related to the poor economy.

Hendron fits the profile

Hendron fits the profile of many of the people who have killed at their workplace: He is male (95 percent are men in these cases), he showed no previous signs of violent behavior, and he was a veteran employee, which made him more susceptible to company layoffs or benefit alterations, notes Mr. Chavez.

Unlike employees with little history with the company, job veterans have years to develop grudges that ultimately can lead to desperation if they feel they are treated unfairly. Negative evaluations, termination, or, in Hendron’s case, an apparent problem with retirement benefits are common factors leading to sudden violent behavior, Chavez says

“Things may go fine for 20 years and all the sudden, something may go awry,” he adds. “They resort to violence because they feel there’s nothing else left.

Workplace violence by the numbers

Workplace violence was on the wane in 2006, the most recent year tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries. Between 1992 and 2006 there were 11,613 workplace homicide victims, which averages to about 800 homicides each year.

The largest number of homicides in one year was 1,080 in 1994; the least was 540, in 2006.

But Chavez says workplace casualties are classified not just by death, but also by threats and physical violence. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates there are 2 million cases of workplace violence each year.

Among the recommendations offered by OSHA are a zero-tolerance policy for threats made by one worker to another, implementation of a workplace violence prevention program, and increased security technology, from video cameras to increased lighting and alarm systems.

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