You might say Sunny Corona’s career in safety began in 1993. She was in Tampa, Florida, working for Fireman’s Fund Insurance, which had eight months prior had fired a man who came back one day around lunch. The man shot five supervisors, two fatally, with a 9mm handgun before running off to a park and killing himself.
As it turned out, the man had previously worked for AllState Insurance, where his co-workers and supervisors were so afraid of him — with good reason, as a handgun was often in his briefcase — that the company sent him on his way with a generous severance package and a glowing recommendation for his next job, which happened to be at Fireman’s Fund Insurance.
The three survivors sued AllState and set in motion a major revamping of workplace rules and laws. There are now entrenched legal incentives for employers to warn other employers that someone might be a dangerous hire.
It was the first of three graphic incidents of workplace violence that Corona was indirectly connected to that led her to found Custom Safety Services, a workplace safety consulting firm, in Fair Lawn. Corona will present “Workplace Violence On the Rise: Are you Next?” at the Commerce Industry Association on Wednesday, April 14, at 8 a.m. at CIANJ headquarters in Paramus. Cost: $25. Visit www.cianj.org.
Corona started out as a geology major at New Jersey State University (formerly Jersey City State College) before she realized she didn’t actually want to be in the field. She was drawn by the technical side of the subject and found herself in the safety departments of a series of insurance companies before striking out on her own about eight years ago.
Her decision was shaped by the fatal shooting at the Fireman’s Fund, but also by incidents involving friends. One was the victim of a fatal shooting at the Montclair Post Office in 1995, where a gunman lined up his victims and shot them execution style.
The third incident involved a friend who worked at a nursing home in Virginia where one of the health aides suddenly went on a stabbing rampage before being subdued by a worker withpepper spray. As he fell to the floor, Corona says, the aide kept muttering the phrase “She didn’t respect me.” It was aimed at his supervisor, whom he believed was condescending.
Corona’s friend was not involved in the knife attack, but this third strike caused her to change gears and go into safety consulting. Now a certified safety professional, she spends most of her time teaching businesses how to watch out for potential workplace violence.
The warning signs. Everybody knows that weird guy who never says a word and always seems to be in a bad mood. And in truth, he might be harmless. But here’s something Corona has come to learn: “Nobody goes from zero to crazy in four seconds.”
One of the most common things Corona hears in the aftermath of any workplace attack is “The guy just snapped.” But nobody just snaps, she says. More likely, either no one was aware or no one was paying attention to the escalation.
The snap comes only after a series of steps, the first being unusual behavior. A coworker who suddenly becomes moody and uncooperative, maybe irritable or argumentative, should raise a few flags. If this level of behavior is left unchecked, it could lead to Stage II — the employee as martyr.
An employee who sets himself as a victim is laying the groundwork for a dangerous next step, Corona says. He might be angry that he didn’t get a raise like other people did, or that he is a regular target of supervisor abuse or disrespect. Whatever the impetus, this stage usually comes with veiled threats of the “or else” variety.
Most times, people do not take this kind of thing seriously. After all, the number one thing people complain about is work. But an employee openly talking about sabotaging equipment or muttering about the boss could be ready to escalate to Stage III, which is intense anger.
At this point, says Corona, the employee is close to doing something likely to be thought of as snapping. This stage usually comes with obvious symptoms, such as total withdrawal into the self, heavy depression, and direct intimidation of co-workers. Often, like the guy from Fireman’s Fund, they carry weapons. Not necessarily on display, but present. If you see weapons making their way into the workplace, Corona, says, it’s time to open your mouth.
Sources of anger. Trouble can stem from any number of things. A simple slight, even one the offender didn’t realize he had made, can set someone off. Just ask Corona’s father.
Corona’s father was a bus driver in her native Jersey City. One day he pulled his bus back into its terminal and was met with a punch in the mouth by a man who claimed he’d been cut off — three miles ago. The man had followed her father back to the terminal. “He jumped right back up — he was kind of proud the guy hadn’t knocked him out,” Corona says. But her father hadn’t been aware that he’d cut anyone off.
In an unusual turn, the driver returned to the terminal a few weeks later and apologized. Most violent situations don’t have such happy ending, but it brings up a different type of workplace violence — the threat from outside. We notice stories about violence in the workplace when they involve a co-worker, but we don’t stop to think that so much of the violence that occurs at work is wrought by outsiders — robbers, angry customers, and numerous other types of people who lash out.
Combating the problem. We are all familiar with incidents like the shooting of a convenience store clerk working alone in a questionable neighborhood. Such stores often have bulletproof glass and cameras these days, but not all workplaces are such obvious targets of someone looking to score a bag of money.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the larger the business the more likely it is to have direct, obvious security measure like cameras, gates, and security booths. But for smaller operations, says Corona, the secret is to pay attention.
Regular conversation with co-workers, plus a healthy dose of training in what to watch out for, can go a long way. In some cases, she admits, it’s easier to see trouble brewing. A weapon bulging from someone’s pocket is an obvious alarm bell, but quiet withdrawal might not be noticed. Supervisors are best advised to communicate with their employees, to know what’s on their minds, and to encourage workers to — anonymously, of course — warn their supervisors of suspicious behavior.
Other forms of violence. While workplace shootings are down in number, they have been gaining in ferocity, Corona says. Still, gun or knife attacks are only part of the picture. In 2008, the last full year in which statistics are available, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded a little more than 5,000 fatal workplace incidents. Sixteen percent of those were homicides, and most of those involved weapons.
But a deeper problem is workplace bullying, Corona says. One of her first clients was a nursing home that couldn’t figure out how it could have a handful of staff members who had worked there for years while so many of the new hires were punching out at lunch and then never coming back. Turns out the veterans were warning new hires against trying to work overtime and the intimidated newbies were too afraid to come back.
In other instances, warehouse workers who never had a whit of supervisory experience were promoted to such positions simply because they had been around forever. They continued to berate employees because no one had ever taught them how to deal with people.
Though Corona says she has seen a little bit of cyber-bullying at work, she doesn’t see it being a longterm problem. Businesses have already made it abundantly clear what they will and will not abide, and the problem seems to be minimal.
That, however, doesn’t mean it should be dismissed as a problem only high school kids are having. The surest way to defend against violence, Corona says, is to prevent it. And the best way to prevent it is to train your employees to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt a zero tolerance policy on workplace violence.
“I hate to compare people to dogs,” Corona says, “but the first time your dog growls at you and you let it go, you have a problem. You have to deal with it right now.”