Looking Back At A Workplace Violence Tragedy

Workplace violence protocols

In June of this year, three UPS employees in San Francisco lost their lives, and two of their associates were injured, when a co-worker opened fire following a morning meeting. Looking at this extreme and tragic example of workplace violence (WPV) from some distance now, we can see some clues in the shooter’s behavior that pointed toward his grievous act.

The killer, Jimmy Lam, who took his own life once police arrived, may have had a previous conflict with at least the first of his victims, according to others at the facility. San Francisco’s KTVU says surviving employees at the bay area UPS facility believe that Lam felt he was being bullied by those who he singled out. As we’ve written in this space previously, episodes like this one are examples of ‘targeted violence’: A scenario where the perpetrator has a victim or victims in mind when he plans his actions. In this case, security camera recordings showed Lam passing many other employees without any kind of incident before he drew his weapon.

Lam, in his years with the company, had a series of personal and professional problems, according to his co-workers. One result of these was a formal complaint by him that he was being worked too hard. Away from work, Lam had been in some legal trouble and was involved a prolonged conflict over his visitation rights for a child.

Findlay All Hazards cannot second-guess the policies and actions of Lam’s employer and we have no more insight to the incident than what we’ve learned from the numerous media reports. And, a deceased shooter means that investigators likely never fully know the reasons why he or she took such awful actions. But a pattern of behavior has been noted in this case, and we believe it is fair to portray this event as an example of a troubled employee careening down a tragic path over an extended period of time. And we are confident that incidents like this one can be avoided if EHS, Security, HR, and general managers take a consistently proactive approach toward keen observation of employee behavior. Characteristics like those later credited to Jimmy Lam should indicate that someone could be starting down a terrible path. OSHA offers recommendations for behaviors that may be indicators of future violence, including:

  • Recent major changes in behavior, demeanor, appearance
  • Withdrawal from normal activities, family, friends, co-workers
  • Intimidating actions, verbal abuse, harassment of others
  • Challenges to authority
  • Blames others for problems in life or work
  • Abuse of drugs and/or alcohol
  • References to other incidents of violence
  • Weapons (has many or is fascinated with weapons)

As we’ve described in this blog in preceding posts, Findlay All Hazards teaches its WPV Prevention clients to develop a Threat Assessment Team that can accomplish two things. First, to interpret any observation of potentially aggressive behavior using metrics developed by the Secret Service. Potential perpetrators of violence are found to be on a scale known as the Targeted Violence Continuum, and their place on this spectrum determines how close they are to taking violent action. So, correct interpretation of observed behavior is essential to gauging how close an unsettled person may be to acting out, and if a further action is warranted. That action is the second goal of Threat Assessment Teams – To intervene as necessary with the help of outside agencies and authorities as warranted. Skilled intervention is the key to preventing WPV incidents.

There is more to the San Francisco story than the preceding circumstances and awful events of June 14. As described by Santa Rosa’s Press-Democrat, UPS employees at the beleaguered San Francisco facility were reticent to return to work after the shooting. As the article points out, a team of specially-trained service providers arrived at the scene some 30 minutes after the first call to police. Even with such personnel on-hand, including highly-skilled counselors, employees who have survived a mass-casualty incident may struggle terribly with the idea of returning to such a traumatic place. Naturally, the employer and local authorities want only what is best for the employees. The staff has the right to feel safe at their workplace and it’s fully understandable that feelings of apprehension and sadness can be overwhelming in the aftermath of a workplace shooting. But the workplace has to resume operations at some point, and a complete continuity plan may be the only means to resume processes expediently with a staff that feels comfortable returning to normal operations. It’s conceivable that a prolonged shuttering of the workplace, or even many sequential understaffed workdays, could be so detrimental to the company that employees lose their jobs thanks to setbacks in production or sales. This might be more likely in rural areas, or smaller communities, where the kind of post-event resources that were quick to aid the UPS employees in San Francisco simply are not handy.

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