What Does the Virginia Newscaster Shooting Tell Us About Workplace Safety?

By Peter DePaolis

Since news reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward, employees of CBS affiliate WDBJ in Roanoke, Virginia, were shot to death in August while conducting a live television interview, questions have been raised regarding workplace safety.

At a news conference the day after the shooting, the station manager of WDBJ was asked if the station could have done anything more to keep its workers safe. “We can probably screen more,” he said, adding that it’s difficult to get an honest reference from a former employer.

“I don’t know the answer to that question,” he said.

In most cases, horrific events like shootings cannot be predicted, but there are things companies can do to reduce the risk of them occurring, according to labor scholars and consultants in workplace safety.

Suggestions include forming teams to keep an eye on and help employees who seem to be having a hard time with anger and, if firing is necessary, doing so in a way that respects the employee’s privacy as much as possible, according workplace risk consultants.

Employers face a number of conflicting legal obligations. Many experts say employers have a legal duty to provide a safe workplace, and that includes not doing everything possible to monitor and stop predictable threats.

On the flip side, they must be very careful with employees who may have mental health problems. The Americans with Disabilities Act works to combat discrimination against disabled people.

While there are angry employees who might pose a violent threat, there are far more who do not and whose rights and privacy must be protected. And there is no foolproof screening method to protect your workplace.

Many companies refer troubled employees to worker assistance programs, which provide counseling, or they will refer them to psychologists or other programs. But psychologists are bound by confidentiality unless their patients are clearly a threat to hurt themselves or others.

Close to two million Americans each year report being victims of workplace violence, which can involve intimidation, verbal abuse, threats, physical violence and harassment.

Between 1997 and 2010, workplaces saw 8,666 homicides, of which about one in 10 were carried out by co-workers or former co-workers. Total homicides in the workplace have been falling, according to the Department of Labor.

About the Author
Peter DePaolis joined the firm in 1980 and has since represented a large number of individuals involved in automobile collisions, truck accidents, bus crashes, defective products, and medical malpractice cases. A significant portion of Mr. DePaolis’ practice is devoted to working on behalf of people suffering from asbestosis, mesothelioma, and other asbestos-related cancers. He has led his firm’s fight against the asbestos industry and has recovered over $30 million in damages for asbestos victims and their families.