Last Word

Rick Bell

Workforce's Last Word author, Rick Bell.
Training for an Unnatural Disaster
Training for an Unnatural Disaster

s a kid growing up in the Midwest we practiced tornado drills. After moving to the West Coast it was drop, cover and hold while prepping for an earthquake.

Natural disasters like tornadoes and earthquakes strike with little warning. Sadly, the same is true when a weapon-​toting menace is intent on killing a lot of people.

I experienced my first active-shooter drill in our office building a few weeks back.

It wasn’t unlike the fire drill we practice once a year — alarms flash overhead, we all get up from our desks and move to a designated location for our safety.

Despite the success of our active shooter drill, I still carry with me an apprehension that I’m not safe at work.
Such preparation is good, and it’s clearly the right thing to do. The exercise leaves participants with a measure of confidence that they are in fact armed with the knowledge that will enable them to survive an incident of workplace violence.

The level of comfort that accompanies training is largely true whether we’re practicing a penalty kick in soccer or cramming for an HR certification test. But there’s also the uneasy notion of failure no matter how much we prepare. Training is good, but it’s just that — preparation for the relative unknown.

Despite the success of our active shooter drill, I still carry with me an apprehension that I’m not safe at work. Oh, we have extremely strong security measures in our lobby to limit a gunman’s ability to burst onto the fifth floor and splay my guts across the office. While the chances of that occurring are minimal, there’s a reason we hold an active shooter drill: It’s still a possibility.

Clearly I am not alone as I try to compartmentalize my fears. According to statistics released this year by the Society for Human Resource Management, 1 in 7 Americans does not feel safe at work.

The SHRM data also shows that in 2012, 36 percent of HR professionals stated their organization had at some point experienced an incident of workplace violence at some level. That’s a pretty scary number, until you read that in 2019 the figure spikes to nearly 50 percent.

The sad realization is that mass shootings are a common occurrence in this country, and that gun violence too often takes place in and around where people work. We are justifiably horrified when we see employees and customers shot up at a superstore in the name of a political, racial or religious ideology professed by someone with a weapon that belongs on a battlefield, not near the checkout line. It sickens us to see a popular entertainment district turned into a shooting gallery.

And we are outraged — although frankly I do not think we are outraged enough — when a religious institution or school is the target. How helplessly, maddeningly shameful is it that it’s come to this — your children, my co-workers’ children, my grandchildren and all those teachers and school administrators regularly must practice active shooter drills?

Frankly it’s absurd that we drill for someone bent on killing us at work. But we do. As if it’s a tornado. Or an earthquake. Active shooters are not natural. But it sure is a disaster.

Some will shrug and contend it’s the new normal. Violence in and around workplaces is woven into our lives so long as someone has a grudge and access to a gun.

That’s hard to dispute when you look at the numbers surrounding workplace violence. The National Safety Council’s figures are downright disheartening. In 2017, workplace assaults resulted in 18,400 injuries and 458 fatalities, with industries including health care, service providers and education more prone to violence than others.

Those are just obscene figures. And there’s no shortage of incidents to make us believe that 2019’s final tally for workplace violence will see a dramatic decline. It was just a few months back that 12 workers were shot dead at the Virginia Beach, Virginia, municipal center by a fellow employee.

And a February shooting at a suburban Chicago manufacturing plant killed five people including the human resources director and an HR intern who were conducting the shooter’s termination when the employee pulled a gun and shot them to death.

To say that elected leaders must act on gun control measures is an understatement. Employers also can be a strong voice for weapons regulations and in the case of some superstores — sporting goods retailer Dick’s comes to mind — end the sale of guns. Internally, employers can adopt and enforce zero-tolerance policies against workplace violence.

Every employee deserves a workplace free of aggression. Granted we can’t control seismic activity or an F5 twister. But through common sense legislation and workplace initiatives, perhaps one day disaster drills will again be for tornadoes and earthquakes, not active shooters.

Rick Bell is Workforce‘s editorial director. To comment, email