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Shootings in Buffalo and Laguna Woods Exemplify Alarming Workplace Trend

A woman wearing a mask and gloves at a checkout counter.

​On May 14, a gunman opened fire at a Tops Friendly Markets store in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, N.Y., killing 10 people and injuring three others. Eleven victims were Black.

The next day, a man opened fire during a lunch reception at a church in Laguna Woods, Calif. One person—an Asian-American man—died, and five senior citizens were wounded. Police later said the shooter was targeting Taiwanese people.

In a statement, President Joe Biden condemned racially motivated attacks in the U.S.

"A racially motivated hate crime is abhorrent to the very fabric of this nation," Biden said. "Hate must have no safe harbor. We must do everything in our power to end hate-fueled domestic terrorism."

The shootings are part of a rise in workplace violence in the U.S. over the past decade. More than 150 people were either injured or killed in mass shootings at workplaces from 2015 to May 2021, according to consumer data company Statista.

Racially charged attacks at workplaces have captured headlines over the past several years:

  • In 2015, nine Black people were killed during a shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
  • In 2019, a gunman targeted Latino people in a shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing 22 individuals.
  • In 2019, shootings at three spas in Atlanta killed eight people, six of whom were of Asian descent.

"Unfortunately, these heartbreaking reports have become cyclical," said Michelle Webb, chief marketing and communications officer for the Black Women's Health Imperative in Atlanta. "Each new attack exacerbates the epidemic of trauma and stress experienced throughout the Black community and other historically racially targeted communities."

Rise in Violence Against Asian-Americans

Mass shootings against minorities are just one form of workplace violence. Physical assaults, such as pushing or punching, have become increasingly common against people of color at work—particularly against Asian-American workers.

More than 6,600 documented hate incidents against Asian-Americans occurred from March 19, 2020, to March 31, 2021, according to the organization Stop AAPI Hate. Physical assaults made up the third-largest category of total reported incidents, and about 1 in 3 occurrences happened at U.S. businesses.

In response to increased violence against Asian-Americans, Biden signed legislation in May 2021 that aims to make the reporting of hate crimes more accessible by boosting public outreach and ensuring reporting resources are available online in multiple languages.

Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Asian-American person to assume the role, said she has seen firsthand how racial hate can pervade communities.

"Here's the truth: Racism exists in America. Xenophobia exists in America. Antisemitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia—it all exists," Harris said during the bill's signing. "And so the work to address injustice wherever it exists remains the work ahead."

Do You Have a Threat Management Team?

Mike Hodges, a security expert who works predominantly in the health care space, said workplace violence has become a constant, ongoing and growing concern in the U.S.

"It's happening in every industry over the last couple years," he said. "You see reports of issues everywhere from airplanes to supermarkets. Any time you have potential stress points and interactions with the public, you will have an opportunity for violence."

Hodges emphasized the importance of training employees to identify escalating, erratic behavior and teaching them to de-escalate the situation. It is also critical for workers to know who to contact to report a concern.

"Companies should create mechanisms where they're teaching staff to recognize warning signs," Hodges noted. "And do we have processes in place to reach out to law enforcement or have security professionals in-house? These are questions we need to ask ourselves."

The U.S. Department of Labor provides tips for organizations to keep their workplaces safer:

  • Establish a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence. This policy should cover all workers, patients, clients, visitors, contractors and anyone else who may meet company personnel.
  • Assess your worksites. This can allow employers to identify methods for reducing the likelihood of violence occurring.
  • Draft a workplace-violence-prevention program. A well-written and implemented workplace-violence-prevention program, combined with engineering controls, administrative controls and training, can reduce the incidence of workplace violence.

Jeff Kernohan, an associate managing director in security risk management for consulting firm Kroll in Chicago, said employers should strongly consider enlisting a diverse team of employees to form a threat management team.

The threat management team periodically collaborates to identify and act upon threat indicators, such as aggressive behavior or verbal threats that could result in workplace violence.

"Not a lot of companies have a threat management team, but they're important," Kernohan said. "The team gathers information about potential threats, and the different backgrounds and experiences from members of the team allow the company to make a valid, trained response to threat indicators."

The Society for Human Resource Management offers resources for preventing workplace violence. This includes guides on understanding workplace violence prevention and response, a presentation on workplace violence training, and a quiz on preparing for workplace violence.


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