by Dennis Dalman – firstname.lastname@example.org
The “fight or flight” response becomes instantly necessary if a shooter enters a workplace and starts firing, said Sartell Police Chief Jim Hughes.
Hughes recently gave his first informational meeting about workplace violence to employees of the Sartell and St. Joseph Newsleader office in St. Joseph.
If someone enters a workplace and goes berserk, shooting a gun, employees should immediately leave. However, if it’s possible to subdue or distract the shooter – for instance – by throwing heavy objects at him or spraying pepper spray, that should be done to protect others who might be trapped.
Hughes said employee responses should depend on the situation. For example, if a front-desk receptionist should happen to see through a front window an individual approaching with a gun, that is obviously a sign of imminent danger. The receptionist should lock the front door immediately, then yell or use an intercom system to warn everyone in the building to exit the building or to lock themselves in their offices. It’s a good idea for front-desk personnel to have something near them that could be used as a deterrent – scissors, pepper spray, a very heavy paperweight or heavy object of art.
Hughes said he does not mean to alarm employees or to cause undue fears. After all, he said, workplace killings are very rare. Still, they can happen anywhere.
In the past 20 years, 95 Minnesotans died in incidents involving workplace violence. Sixty-eight of those deaths were the result of shootings, according to the Minnesota Bureau of Labor and Industry. Such shootings most often occur in small- and medium-sized businesses. In the past five years, workplace shootings have averaged about 500 per year nationwide.
On Sept. 27 at a signage company in Minneapolis, a former employee walked into the office, firing a gun. He killed five people, including a UPS driver making a delivery, and wounded three others, before killing himself. That shocking incident is what caused Hughes and others to encourage workplaces to do in-house training sessions.
The man in Minneapolis was Albert Engeldinger, 36, who had worked at the small signage company for nearly 20 years. Engeldinger’s parents said he had become increasingly mentally ill in the past two years, and they had begged him to get treatment. At work, he had become belligerent, unproductive and difficult to deal with until the point he was fired.
Engeldinger is an example of the embittered, angry employee or ex-employee who turns homicidal. They are the most typical types who perpetrate workplace shootings or other violence. However, as Hughes noted, in some cases throughout the nation, workplace shooters have been men who were boyfriends or ex-husbands of a woman in the workplace. In their rejection and bitterness, they can lash out in the workplace, trying to kill that targeted person and, in some cases, anyone else who happens to be there. This past October, a man in a Milwaukee suburb killed four people at a spa business in a mall and wounded three others before killing himself. One of the women killed had been a girlfriend of the shooter.
Some shooters choose specific victims and don’t attack others, Hughes said. In other cases, a shooter takes his revenge and anger out on anybody who happens to be in his range of fire.
Hughes said there are some very basic things that can be done in any workplace to help guard against workplace violence.
A workplace should place sticker numbers on all of its doors, on the outside and the inside, so every employee is familiar with the number on every door.
That method, Hughes said, can be very helpful for both employees and emergency responders, including police and deputies.
An employee can quickly tell the police which numbered door the shooter entered. That will give the responders an instant idea of where they would probably make their entry. In an emergency, with panic rampant, Hughes said it can be most confusing to try to explain where a specific door is located (for example, the door on the west, east, south or north).
Being familiar with the number of every door in the workplace can alleviate that confusion, Hughes said.
Preparing a plan
Preparations for workplace violence should be practiced just as employees and families practice fire drills, Hughes said.
Management and employees should familiarize themselves with all exits; they should agree upon a place to meet once they are out of the building. Once survivors have met in the agreed-upon place, they should try to avoid talking about the situation they have just been through. Such conversation, in that moment of panic, can cause confusion about what actually did happen and can distort accurate perceptions of what an individual actually did or did not see.
There should also be a lock-down plan and – ideally – a means to alert everyone instantly that a shooter or another intrusive danger is approaching or inside the building. The company might want to use a one-word code word for such a situation so when all employees hear that word via the intercom or by someone yelling it, they know at once to exit the building or take cover.
If people do not have time to exit the building or to subdue the intruder, they could either hide or as a last resort fall to the floor and “play dead,” Hughes said. If hiding, do not make the slightest noise and be sure to turn your cell phone ringer off. Also, if possible, lock the door of the place you are hiding in or barricade the door with heavy objects. Do not stand behind the door as the shooter may shoot right through it.
Once a year, employees should practice an evacuation at the company.
Calling the police
Whoever calls the police in a shooting incident, either from the company or from a nearby place after an escape, should try to give very specific details to the dispatcher.
A good physical description of the shooter (or shooters) is vital.
Another important fact the police want to know is what kind of weapon the person is wielding. A handgun? A rifle? Several guns at once? A knife? The police response will be adapted according to the kinds of weapons they will be facing.
Also, if known, report the number of actual and potential victims.
The one reporting the crisis should also tell the police the numbered door the shooter entered, his approximate location in the building at the moment and the numbers of any other doors of rooms where the gunman may be.
If employees dial 911, they should leave their cell phones on and leave them somewhere even after they have fled so dispatchers can hear, via the open phones, anything that may be going on.
Exiting the building
When exiting, it is very important to take nothing with – not even a cell phone or a purse, Hughes cautioned.
For one thing, time should not be wasted on a scramble of personal objects.
And for another thing, exiting employees should always remember to keep both of their arms above their heads as they walk rapidly or run from a building. That, Hughes said, is because law enforcement responding to the scene want to know at a glance if someone outside is a fleeing employee or perhaps a berserk gunman.
It’s also a good idea for employees still in the building to keep their hands up when they see police approaching.
Survivors of a shooting might think the police are crude and callous as they rush past survivors – even wounded and bleeding ones – in search of the shooter or shooters.
However, law enforcement’s first duty is to find and stop the shooter(s) by any means at great danger to themselves, Hughes said. They do not have even a second to pick up wounded people or to stop and talk with them. In any shooting incident, ambulances and emergency personnel won’t be far behind the police response.
Stay where you are and do not grab at officers or rush over to them. Keep your arms up if possible, and keep fingers spread apart.
The best thing survivors can do is try to remain calm and be as patient as possible, Hughes said.
Employees should be aware of the kinds of situations that could lead to workplace violence. In some cases, it could be an angry, threatening employee who is about to be or will be fired. Drastic changes in behavior of an employee could be an indication that employee is heading toward disaster.
In other cases, potential shooters could be the significant other of an employee. That significant other, usually a male, can turn bitter, vindictive, threatening and violent against a female who may happen to work in the company. Often, that person may exhibit stalking behavior.
If employees hear a fellow employee expressing worries about the erratic behavior of a significant other or ex-significant other, they should offer to help that employee get help against the threat. Hughes urges people not to leap to dire conclusions about woes shared in the workplace, but it’s something to keep in mind, he added.
Another potential workplace shooter could be someone angry at a company for what the disgruntled person thinks that company has done or not done. Those are the rarest cases, but such outcomes are possible.
Workplace shooters rarely, if ever, just “snap” and go berserk suddenly, Hughes said. In most cases, it takes a long time for them to work up to their violent reactions. They often go through mood swings, depression, angry outbursts, paranoid delusions, talk a lot about financial problems and/or unsatisfactory personal relationships, develop an obsession with weapons and will sometimes make suicidal comments.
Management and employees, Hughes said, should always be aware there are mental-health personnel and agencies willing to help such people under severe stress.
Companies and employees should always report threats to the police. They should also report any threatening or sinister behaviors on the part of customers who visit the company. In the wake of such threats, management and employees should be extra vigilant just in case something would happen.
Hughes said there has never been any workplace killings in St. Joseph or Sartell. They are, he repeated, very rare anywhere, but it is always a good thing to be prepared anyway, he said.
Any company interested in learning more about workplace violence should call Hughes at 251-8186.
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.