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Employers revisit violence prevention efforts

Officials removed the body of a man who opened fire outside the Empire State Building on Friday. New York police said a laid-off clothing designer killed an executive from his former company as pedestrians heading to work packed the street.

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Officials removed the body of a man who opened fire outside the Empire State Building on Friday. New York police said a laid-off clothing designer killed an executive from his former company as pedestrians heading to work packed the street.

In the video, fictional office workers go about their day, making copies and getting coffee, when a man clad in black walks into the lobby and opens fire. Some of the employees run out the back; others lock office doors and turn out lights. When the shooter bursts into the break room, workers attack him with a chair and a fire extinguisher.

The six-minute video — “Run. Hide. Fight.” — aims to instruct people on how to react in the event of a workplace attack and was recently sent to faculty and staff at Boston University by BU police, following shootings at a Colorado movie theater and a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Scott Pare, the deputy director of public safety at BU who e-mailed the link to the video, said it has already raised awareness, with some staff members identifying hiding places and potential weapons, such as a stapler, to use to fight a shooter if necessary.

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“They’re thinking ahead,” Pare said. “All we want them to do is have some type of plan.”

Concern about what to do if a gunman opens fire spikes after every such event, including a shooting Friday in New York by a disgruntled man who killed a vice president of a company that laid him off. Such shootings often lead employers like BU to refocus on safety training and policies.

Many companies have developed or enhanced their on-the-job violence prevention programs in recent years, helping contribute to a steady decline in fatalities, according to specialists in workplace violence prevention.

Over the past 15 years, the number of occupational homicides in the United States has fallen 40 percent, from 860 in 1997 to 518 in 2010, according to the Labor Department.

Government agencies and security management professionals are also devoting more resources to workplace violence prevention. In Massachusetts, for instance, the Middlesex district attorney’s office has a two-year-old program that has trained staff from about 30 private companies, public schools, universities, and government organizations.

Local companies and organizations were jolted into doing more to prevent violence on the day after Christmas in 2000, when a 42-year-old computer tester named Michael McDermott gunned down seven employees at Edgewater Technology Inc. in Wakefield.

“Awareness about the need to focus on the prevention of workplace violence has increased dramatically,” said Jean Haertl, the state’s former director of workplace and domestic violence prevention who now runs a consulting firm in Framingham. “Many people know that if you dial 911, it’s too late.”

Haertl estimates that nearly half of employers nationwide have formal violence prevention programs in place, up from less than a third in 2005, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a federal agency that researches on-the-job illnesses and injuries.

The data storage company EMC Corp. asked the Middlesex district attorney to put on a training session at its headquarters in Hopkinton in December for a team of employees from human resources, legal, and corporate security.

The three-hour program, free and open to any Middlesex County organization, reviews the importance of coordination and communication, including getting to know local law enforcement agents on a first-name basis before an incident takes place. Participants watch news footage of workplace shootings, learn about prevention plans already in place, and take part in role-playing exercises on what to do if an employee reports a threatening situation, such as a woman being harassed by her ex-husband. Then they break up into groups to discuss case studies.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s emergency response program includes a safety awareness training that employees undergo every two years and a comprehensive plan that is updated every six months.

In 2009, a team of six Woods Hole employees who serve as emergency coordinators met with the Falmouth Police Department to review procedures for responding to a shooting. They determined how the police would set up operations and where first-aid-trained employees would report.

“By preparing and training for emergencies, the effects and recovery time can be minimized,” said Ron Reif, director of environmental health and safety.

Not everyone thinks these kinds of programs are helpful. James Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University, said training employees to deal with a shooting can be unnecessarily traumatizing.

“We do more harm than good by overpreparing people for things that have such a low likelihood of happening,” he said.

The best way to prevent employees from acting violently? Treat them with respect, Fox said.

Identifying behavior such as bullying, domestic violence, stalking, threats, and damaging company property before it escalates into homicide is key, said Eugene Rugala, a former FBI agent and workplace violence prevention consultant based in Beaufort, S.C.

“Homicide is the tip of the iceberg. And we know the rest of the iceberg is hidden,” he said.

Rugala is assisting the University of Iowa and University of North Carolina in research funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to evaluate existing workplace violence prevention programs in retail establishments, which have high rates of assault due to robberies.

The institute has devoted more resources to workplace violence prevention efforts in recent years, creating a federal task force to develop guidelines for government offices; researching intervention tactics for high-risk professions, such as sales clerks and taxi drivers; and developing a free online continuing-education course for health care providers, many of whom deal with mentally unstable patients.

Despite all the attention on preventing workplace violence, there’s still a long way to go, said Frank Rudewicz, a Boston attorney and security consultant who served on a committee to create a national standard for workplace violence prevention.

“With all the attention that has been given with the shootings and the horrendous acts,” he said, “you see a new one pop up almost daily around the country.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.
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