The 7% of workplace fatalities
It was a typical day of work at Henry Pratt Co. in Aurora, Ill. The work was manufacturing valves for use in water, wastewater, power, nuclear and industrial markets. That work was forever changed Friday, Feb. 15 when an employee who was being dismissed from his job shot and killed five workers at the plant.
There is no way to comprehend such an act, and no condolences are adequate. We go to work each day with the full expectation that we will be returning home when our work is done. That these five people could not is a product of the environment in which we Americans live and the ease with which a gun could wind up in the hands of a person who clearly should not have possessed it.
And if you think you’ve heard this story before, you’re correct. In 2017, the last full year for which there is OSHA data, there were 458 reported workplace homicides. Of those, 351 were shooting deaths. Workplace fatalities, which also includes stabbing deaths and suicides, are the third-leading cause of workplace deaths, behind only vehicle accidents and slips and falls.
It also is a consistent problem; fatal workplace shootings fell from 381 in 2012 to 307 in 2014, only to jump to 394 in 2016, but between 300 and 400 people die each year after being shot at work.
The problem as we analyze this kind of information is that we view these fatalities as a single number. The truth is that there were not 351 shooting deaths in the workplace in 2017; there were 351 individual people who died from gunshot wounds while on the job.
That’s why we first have to stop talking about the five people who died in Aurora on Feb. 15 as a group. We first need to see them as individuals:
- Josh Pinkard, 37, the plant manager and a father of three
- Vincente Juarez, 54, a stockroom attendant and forklift operator
- Russell Beyer, 47, a mold operator
- Clayton Parks, 32, the human resources manager
- Trevor Wehner, 21, a Northern Illinois University student and a human resources intern who was on his first day at the plant.
There are so many ways to discuss this kind of tragedy, from constitutional precedent to sociology. I’ll leave those discussions for another day in another venue. Here, we need to talk about the part of plant safety we don’t talk about very much, yet that accounts for almost 7% of all workplace fatalities. Workplace shootings pose a consistent threat to workplace safety and security.
All the plants I visit prohibit guns on their property, even those in states with concealed carry permits. Plants have strict safety policies, and many times I’m asked to view a safety video and acknowledge that I have viewed it in writing before I enter the plant. I don’t recall this topic being discussed directly in such videos, but like many people, I cannot fathom how someone would walk into a plant and fire a gun.
Yet here we are, forced to confront the worst of ourselves and deal with the ramifications of such tragedies. While we are all affected emotionally by all of these shootings—and I refuse to accept that we have become numb to them whether they are in our plants, our schools or our streets—this one struck closer to home, literally, because I live in the adjacent town. The workers at this plant are my neighbors. These workers support their families and provide a service to manufacturing. They didn’t deserve to die on that day in February.
But it was a typical Friday at work in the U.S. On average, every day for the last seven years in the American workplace, one person has been shot to death on the job.
To solve this issue, we must confront the uncomfortable truth about this problem and refocus our efforts to address this safety crisis.