February 11, 2022

3 Warning Signs Of Workplace Violence: Preventing Active Shooter Situations

You’ve probably seen a constant stream of workplace violence incidents in the news every day across America. You may be here to find the warning signs, and learn how you can take appropriate action to spot a potentially violent person, co-worker, or employee.

Or, like many people, you may still be in denial and assume violence in the workplace is extremely rare and it would never happen at your business. Unfortunately, violence in the workplace is a reality, and workplace shootings and violent assaults can happen everywhere.

Before we get into the warning signs of workplace violence, you are reading this article for a reason. It’s important to act immediately if any of the following are true:

  • You feel like your safety and well-being are in jeopardy
  • You feel like someone else’s life is being threatened
  • You feel like someone may pose a threat to safety at your business

Do not wait for an incident of workplace violence to occur. Tell your company’s human resources or security services, and if necessary contact your local law enforcement authorities, right away. Your brain processes fear and threat much quicker than your conscious mind so that gut feeling you had about a situation in your workplace is probably correct!

What is workplace violence?

Workplace violence occurs when there is an act or a threat of physical violence, intimidation, or other menacing disruptive behavior at the workplace. It ranges from stalking, emotional abuse, subtle insults, and physical assaults, all the way up to mass murder. Employees, clients, customers, and visitors may be affected or involved.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), the third-leading cause of fatal occupational injuries in the United States is acts of workplace violence. The Covid-19 pandemic, increasing levels of isolation, and social unrest have only exacerbated the issues.

How to prevent workplace violence?

The security of employees must be the most important concern of an employer before violence occurs. While it’s impossible to prevent all active shooter situations, knowing the warning signs can increase your chances of stopping any potential violence before it strikes.

There are steps that all employers and employees can take to minimize the risk of these incidents, and The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has compiled a list of recommendations for preventing workplace violence.

Some general measures that can be taken to help prevent workplace violence include:

  1. Having a workplace violence policy in place and training employees 
  2. Screening job applicants and customers for red flags
  3. Identifying and resolving conflict before it escalates
  4. Keeping work areas monitored, clean, and organized
  5. Reporting any suspicious activity or behavior immediately
  6. Hiring security and installing surveillance in the workplace

Active Shooter: Expectations vs. Reality

Sadly, many times direct threats, harassment of other employees, and even physical assault can go unreported to security workers and human resources. If the employee has a substance abuse issue and other forms of personal problems these warning signs may ultimately lead down the road of escalation into a violent incident.

Workplace violence doesn’t only refer to mass shooting events. It usually begins with signs like harassment, passive-aggressive behavior, or passive-aggressive actions.

If you have any co-workers or employees displaying any of the following traits in their work environment, you need to act with caution and alert security of their presence at your business.

They are not only disruptive. They might also be dangerous.

  • Intimidation in the form of verbal abuse, verbal threats, or written threats
  • Obsessive involvement in their job with lackluster results
  • No or very few interests outside the workplace
  • No or very few friends in or outside the workplace
  • Inability to control their emotions or deal with stress
  • Harassment of another employee, such as repeated texts or phone calls
  • A blatant disregard for the safety of others
  • Past violent behaviors, even sometimes seemingly minor incidents like throwing objects

What are the warning signs of workplace violence?

1. Gathering Specific Supplies

It’s not uncommon for an attacker to stockpile weapons and ammunition in preparation for their assault. In fact, this is could be one of the earliest warning signs that someone may be planning to launch a violent attack.

If you notice someone making or stockpiling firearms, knives, or other weapons, it’s important to view their behavior within context and relevance.

Are they an avid hunter or sports shooter where these supplies would be normal?

Or are they loading a deer rifle into their vehicle on a Tuesday morning of a school day?

Omaha Mall Shooter

The Omaha Mall Attack of 2007

In 2007, an unarmed 19-year-old entered a department store in the Omaha Mall, scanned for a few moments, and left only to return 6 minutes later with a rifle to begin shooting.

Spotting his strange behavior during the pre-attack surveillance phase could have saved lives.

More specific warning signs of workplace violence and dangerous behavior include seeing an employee or other person with supplies like chains, handcuffs, or any other material meant to lock doors, restrain someone, or tie something down.

These are items that might typically be purchased in military surplus stores, security stores, spy shops, construction, or hardware stores. The key is to spotting these items is to always be aware of levels of appropriateness to a situation. Examples of active shooter bags and kits to look out for would be, seeing someone wearing a tactical military bag in a church service or carrying a hockey bag at a school with no hockey team.

Metal gun parts tend to poke through materials and can rip through or leave a visible print or bulge on the outside of an active shooter bag or jacket. If an active shooter has filled the bag with a lot of ammo, explosives, or guns it can sometimes creak and crease at the shoulder straps and look very heavy.

If you see a person at your workplace with anything like that, trust your gut feeling. They are a definite cause for concern and should be scrutinized more deliberately. Blocking the door with any of these items could potentially hinder the ability of first responders to enter and stop the violence.

One active shooter incident found the attacker bringing a large container of liquid soap to the university he was attending. He had spread the soap along the hallway to trip law enforcement but this was unsuccessful.

You might ask yourself why the individual needed to purchase such a large container of soap and bring it with them to the University. Not an implausible situation, but it might deserve more scrutiny especially combined with other warning signs.

2. Practicing The Attack

When it comes to identifying an active shooter before they strike, paying attention to their behavior is essential. One of the possible warning signs is when someone begins to practice or rehearse for the attack.

A practice run is one of the last few steps before the actual attack begins, so it’s important to know this and take precautions if necessary, like letting security know of their presence and what you’ve seen them doing at the business.

Active shooters will sometimes practice their assault before carrying out an act of workplace violence. This could involve target shooting or even staging the attack itself.

If you notice someone who seems to be rehearsing an attack, this should be seen as a major red flag. It’s important to remember that not all practice is bad – many people enjoy practicing martial arts or firearms for sport.

However, if you see someone who is practicing in a violent or destructive manner, this is definitely a cause for concern.

Virginia Tech shooter

The Virginia Tech Shooting

In 2007, an active shooter killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in a mass shooting at Virginia Tech. Prior to the shooting, the killer had been diagnosed with a mental illness and was deemed a danger to himself and others.

In the weeks leading up to the massacre, the killer began behaving strangely and stockpiling weapons and ammunition. He also sent violent threats to his classmates and professors.

One of the final events the active shooter conducted was to go to a local gun range and bought multiple life-like paper targets and laid them face down on the floor of the range.

He then proceeded to walk between them firing the two pistols he was holding into the targets. This event was noticed but the witnesses did not share the information thinking it was just another “odd” customer.

Why didn’t law enforcement stop the Virginia Tech shooter?

To play Devil’s Advocate, when people ask why law enforcement didn’t intervene immediately, there has to be a law broken for them to enforce. In the above example of the shooting range witnesses, at worst it was very strange behavior but no law was broken.

You should minimize jumping to conclusions based on one data point unless it registers so high on your “Richter scale” of danger. Then you need to contact law enforcement immediately.

When law enforcement arrives at the scene of an active shooter incident, they are often going in with little to no information about the situation, victims, shooter, and anyone that’s potentially injured. The police and other first responders have to make sense of a completely chaotic situation and know how to deal with it in seconds. Situations like the examples above do not leave any room for error or “data point” gathering by the authorities.

The employees and security personnel around the person exhibiting strange behaviors in a workplace will have a much better read and should know when to trust their concerns.

3. Verbalizing Threats or Making Odd Comments

One of the easiest ways to identify an active shooter before they strike is by listening for any verbal threats or comments. In many cases, attackers exhibit strange behavior, act manic and out of control, make menacing comments, or talk about their plans prior to carrying out the assault.

This may be in the form of written threats or warnings, online posts, in-person, or another form of communication that they can deny when confronted.

If you notice someone making repeated threats, violent comments about wanting to hurt other workers or managers, or bragging about their plan, it can be a warning sign of a serious problem.

These types of statements are warning signs of workplace violence. They should not be ignored and should be reported to authorities immediately.

Passive-aggressive behavior and other early warning signs of workplace violence

It’s important to keep in mind that not all the things we say are serious and not all people who threaten violence are actually planning an attack.

However, if you see any of the following exhibited by any employee at your workplace, you must take the important step to alert security before any violent act can occur.

  • Bullying other workers in the workplace
  • Starting rumors and showing a high degree of pettiness
  • Problems with drugs and alcohol
  • Marked changes in their personality
  • Inability to accept blame or follow procedures
  • Showing disdain for most people, especially managers and authority figures
  • A noticeable negative change in their attitude towards their jobs, your business, managers, or other employees

What is the most common warning sign of workplace violence?

An interesting fact from the recent FBI Active Shooter Study shows that a vast majority of threats were made in person. This makes sense because if the active shooter delivers the threat where he and the victim are the only ones present, they can deny it ever happened.

Law enforcement would much rather spend their time investigating a verbal threat for the means and motivations to act rather than respond to an active shooter or other workplace violence event down the line.

What Should You Do If Someone Threatens Your Workplace?

If you are threatened by someone, it is important to remember to stay calm and try to get as much information as possible. Ask the person making the threats what they plan to do and why they are doing it.

It is also important to try and get a description of the person making the threats, including any identifying information such as tattoos or piercings.

If possible, take pictures or videos of the person making the threats. Once you have gathered as much information as possible, it is important to report the incident to authorities.

What Should You Do If Someone Threatens You Personally?

No one ever expects to receive a threat in person or on social media, especially from a fellow employee at their workplace, but it can happen to anyone.

Do not ignore these kinds of warning signs. If you receive a threatening message from another person, the next thing you do is the most important step to keep yourself safe.

Don’t retaliate or respond to the threat. That could make the situation worse. Instead, save the message and any other evidence, block the person who sent the threat, and report the threat to security at your workplace or to the authorities, if necessary.

What happens during an active shooting?

Every active shooter incident is unique and requires a unique response. For most people that work in law enforcement and the military, decision-making under stress means the difference between life and death, and having a framework for understanding what the shooter is doing can help you react accordingly and survive.

The Active Shooter OODA Loop

One of the tools we can use to help us handle situations like workplace violence is the Active Shooter OODA Loop cycle. The OODA Loop was originally developed by military strategist John Boyd to increase the effectiveness of fighter pilot safety procedures.

The OODA Loop is a framework that anyone can use to spot the warning signs of a potentially violent person, assess a situation, minimize harm, and stay in control during an incident of workplace violence.

What are the steps of the OODA Loop?

  1. Observations: The active shooter will first observe their surroundings and identify potential targets.
  2. Orientation: The active shooter will then orient themselves to the best position to carry out their attack.
  3. Decision: The active shooter will then make a decision on whether or not to attack.
  4. Action: The active shooter will then take action and carry out their attack.

How does the OODA Loop improve decision-making?

Instead of just attacking an active shooter planning cycle at the ACTION phase, where the gun is in the facility and shots are being fired, try to look out for the warning signs.

Interrupt the active shooter’s OBSERVATION and ORIENTATION phases, and once you are aware of their behavior, report your concerns to security and law enforcement authorities.

While the victims will feel intense fear and panic remember, so will the shooter! Their brain is under a tremendous cognitive load when it realizes serious harm or injury is about to happen.

How to stay calm during an act of workplace violence?

If you are in a dangerous or emergency situation, it is important to stay calm. Panicking only makes the situation worse. You must keep your wits, even when everyone around you may be losing theirs. If you are able to, try to assess the situation and come up with a plan of action to alert security or call the police.

Remember to take care of yourself first and foremost. If you’re not safe, then you can’t help anyone else. Stay calm and focused during danger or emergencies. It may be the difference between life and death.

Box Breathing

One well-known law enforcement and military technique to stay calm during violent situations is called “Box Breathing.” Box Breathing can help calm your nerves and keep situational awareness in focus if you find yourself in a sticky situation. After you get done reading this article, try it and see if it has any effect on you.

What are the steps of Box Breathing?

  1. Breathe in counting to four slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs.
  2. Hold your breath for 4 seconds. Try to avoid inhaling or exhaling for 4 seconds.
  3. Slowly exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds.
  4. Repeat steps 1 to 3 until you feel re-centered.

Conclusion

In this blog post, we discussed the three top warning signs that an active shooter may be preparing to launch a violent attack on your business, employees, and anyone else unlucky to be in the path of violence. Learning how to identify these behaviors is essential for keeping yourself and others safe.

The active-shooter, by definition, is someone who commits a violent act in public with the intent of killing or injuring multiple people. Even though they are working alone, there are certain planning behaviors that can crop up if you know what to look for.

The first step to preventing workplace violence and active shooting events before they happen is being aware of warning signs that one may be headed your way!

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  1. Thank you Sir,and yes it happens more and more every day,I see it quite often I work in security and usually,after the fact,one has already exhibited violent behavior we install card access or key pad entry thank fully none have been so extreme,but maybe limiting the access stoped the act, only God knows but surveillance and card entrys are becoming more and more popular,I try to get as much as I can out to all I can .one can never get enough info. Thank you, Sir nice again.

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  2. I am an Assistant Superintendent in a public school system. This information is usefull for establishing procedures and observing staff, students, visitors and others on campus.
    We have a School Resource Officer in each building and a security desk member at each main entrance. I will share this with them and school leadership. Appropriate pieces of this will need to filter down to all staff without providing too much information to a potential problem employee. We also include our maintenance, custodial, student transportation and food service staff in situational awareness training since they are in unique positions to identify anamolies inside and outside our buildings.

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  3. A very good article and it’s articles like this that helps me to become a better Security Officer. Thank You

    Reply

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