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Shooting at Accent Signage puts focus on workplace violence

Photo by Bill Kelley
Reuven Rahamim, the owner of Accent Signage Systems, was killed Thursday afternoon by a man who apparently lost his job at the small company.

After tragedy, the human mind searches for explanations. What prompted the mass shootings at a Minneapolis workplace on Thursday? Was it an extreme expression of the stress so many workers have felt in the wake of the Great Recession? Was it trouble at home that carried into the office? Drugs or alcohol? Or was it due to a deranged individual with unique problems? 

We don’t, of course, know the true explanation for the explosion of violence shortly after 4:30 p.m. at Accent Signage Systems Inc., a sign-making business in Minneapolis’ Bryn Mawr neighborhood. All the public knows at this point is that a gunman killed four people inside the business, wounded several others and then turned the weapon on himself. The dead included the Accent Signage owner and a driver for United Parcel Service.

Unfortunately, we also know that workplace violence is all too common in America.

Some 2 million American workers fall victim each year to violence on the job, ranging from threats to physical assaults to homicide, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In fact, such violence is one of the leading causes of job-related deaths.

“No one is immune,” OSHA says in its report.

But some workers face more risk than the rest of us: taxi drivers, visiting nurses, psychiatric evaluators, bartenders, probation officers, phone and cable TV installers, letter carriers and those who exchange money with the public. Obviously, police officers, security guards and others who work alone or in small groups late at night are on the list, too.

None of those factors seem to explain the Minneapolis shootings. According to news accounts, the shooter apparently had lost a job at the sign-making company. And so this case brings to mind the workplace killings that gave rise to the grisly phrase “going postal.”

It goes back to Aug. 20, 1986, when a part-time letter carrier named Patrick H. Sherrill faced possible firing due to his troubled work history. He walked into the Edmond, Okla., post office where he worked and shot 14 people to death before killing himself.

Though the most deadly, the Edmond tragedy was not the first episode of its kind, the FBI noted in a report on dealing with workplace violence.

In just the previous three years, four postal employees had been killed by present or former coworkers in separate shootings in Johnston, S.C.; Anniston, Ala.;  and Atlanta.

No litmus test

Those killings prompted employers and employees alike to watch for signs that someone at work was losing control. Unfortunately, though, no profile or litmus test exists to indicate whether an employee might become violent, said the report by the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime.

“Instead, it is important for employers and employees alike to remain alert to problematic behavior that, in combination, could point to possible violence,” the report said. “No one behavior in and of itself suggests a greater potential for violence, but all must be looked at in totality.”

Still, there are risk factors associated with potential violence. They include personality conflicts(between coworkers or between a worker and supervisor); a mishandled termination or other disciplinary action; bringing weapons onto a work site; drug or alcohol use on the job; or a grudge over a real or imagined grievance.

Risks can also stem from an employee’s personal circumstances — breakup of a marriage or romantic relationship; other family conflicts; financial or legal problems; or emotional disturbance.

Violence declines

While it is very tricky to predict whether and when an individual will resort to violence, the public awareness following the rash of postal killings in the 1980s apparently made a difference.

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported last year that workplace violence dropped dramatically between 1993 and 2009, even faster than rates of violence in other venues. At the nation’s workplaces, the level of non-fatal violent incidents had dropped by a quarter during that period, and the number of homicides decreased by 51 percent.

John Souter
Photo by Bill KelleyAs of Friday morning, Accent’s director of operations, John Souter, was in serious condition at Hennepin County Medical Center, a hospital spokeswoman said.

Still, 521 Americans were killed at work in 2009, and more than 572,000 others were victims of rape, robbery, assault and other violence.

Between 2005 and 2009, strangers had committed the greatest proportion of non-fatal violence. About 70 percent of the homicides were committed by robbers and other assailants while 21 percent were committed by work associates.

Safer at work

Keep this sobering fact in mind at the same time you agree with me that there is too much violence at our offices, factories, shops, hospitals and restaurants: In this country, we are safer at work than elsewhere.

Outside of work, Americans age 16 and older suffered 16 violent crimes per 1,000 people on average each year between 2005 and 2009, said the Justice Statistics report. At work, it was five violent crimes per 1,000 people.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Pat Berg on 09/28/2012 - 11:11 am.

    Such a tragedy

    This is so sad on so many levels. Upon first hearing about this, I thought the business name sounded familiar, and sure enough, MinnPost had done a really nice article on this business and its founder in early August:

    Such a sad end to such an inspiring story with the death of Mr. Rahamim. And my thoughts and condolences go out to all of those who suffered losses of their loved ones.

  2. Submitted by Kenneth Kjer on 09/28/2012 - 11:35 am.

    Workplace violence

    I spent over 20 years in law enforcement and over 20 years working in Human Resources. Because of my prior background in law enforcement, workplace violence was of interest to me in my HR Career and I have studied many cases. The conclusion that I have drawn from looking at many workplace violence issues, not only homicides, but assaults, harassment’s, etc., is that most HR people are woefully under prepared and trained to deal with a violent or potentially violent employees. In fact most are not prepared to deal with an employee who shows signs of aggressiveness or anger in the workplace. To often there is little preparation that goes into a firing. An employee is suddenly called to his bosses office or HR and told that they are being fired. Many HR people are convinced that progressive discipline is all the preparation needed and when an employee crosses that final line they are gone. In terms of stress, it recognized by psychologists that loss of a job is second only to loss of a spouse and this is where the preparation for the termination comes in. My recommendations to HR people are to lengthy to speak about here, but in most cases, good preparation can prevent violence.

  3. Submitted by David Frenkel on 09/28/2012 - 12:20 pm.

    sad story

    This is an incredibly sad story from the obvious loss of life to potentially the loss of a well respected business and its jobs. More details will eventually come out but given how loud the shots fired were the killer must have used a high powered weapon.

  4. Submitted by Rich Crose on 09/28/2012 - 01:02 pm.

    Guns don’t kill people

    Bullets kill people.

    Does the second amendment allow us to outlaw bullets?

    • Submitted by David Koski on 09/28/2012 - 05:51 pm.

      This is a good start for a constructive conversation

      I am a firm believer in bullet control. Bullets are expensive anyway. Expensive in the irreparable damage that death and hospitalization can incur. Make bullets traceable back to the manufacturer. The “life” of a bullet should be from cradle to grave. This information must be reported. Like this: The bullet, manufactured at such and such and sold at this location, killed this person. I understand that bullets can be reloaded and done outside of controls. Put a stiff penalty on those that break that law. Your bullets better be registered. Why should munitions manufacturers and dealers be immune from scrutiny? Seriously, why? Who really has a problem with that, since those that support gun ownership claim to be upstanding citizens, what would they have to hide?

  5. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 09/28/2012 - 02:57 pm.


    It is a terrible thing when people inflict violence on others. It is always a tragedy. In this case, it is a personal tragedy to the people and families directly involved, as well as the loss of a local entrepreneur. I hope the business continues to fulfill its role as being a local business that the neighborhood (and, truly the entire state, it seems) can be proud of.

    This is a good article, by the way. It got me to thinking more globally about workplace violence. One thing I thought was interesting, though, was the three-fold increase in violent crimes outside of the workplace versus inside. I have to wonder about the factors involved in that statistic. Is it the workplace environment repressing violence? Or is it the high level of violent crime amongst the chronically unemployed? Or both? Or more than that?

  6. Submitted by joel gingery on 09/29/2012 - 07:20 am.

    Blame the Victim

    “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” – Paul Batalden

    Richard Sennett and Jonathon Cobb discovered that most of the people they interviewed for their book, “The Hidden Injuries of Class,” felt inadequate and powerless. One worker told them,
    “The more a person is on the receiving end of orders, the more the person’s got to think he or she is really somewhere else in order to keep up self-respect. And yet it’s at work that you’re supposed to “make something” of yourself, so if you’re not really there, how are you going to make something of yourself?”

    This statement reveals the link between alienation and dissociation. Alienation is the condition of being cut off from control over the work process — being “on the receiving end of orders.” Dissociation is a psychological defense against powerlessness — having to go “somewhere else.” Dissociation preserves “self-respect.” However, dissociation keeps the worker trapped in his alienated condition — “if you’re not really there, how are you going to make something of yourself?” In short, alienation makes dissociation necessary, and dissociation
    allows alienation to continue.

    Today, workers who become ill or injured discover that employers feel no loyalty to them. People who produce their entire lives are discarded like worn-out machinery, as employers gut pensions and politicians attack Social Security.

    “If we keep doing what we have been doing,” Batalden says, “we’ll keep getting what we’ve always gotten.” “The definition of lunacy,” he adds, “is to keep doing what you’ve always done and expect different results.”

    • Submitted by Chelle Blakely on 09/30/2012 - 11:19 am.

      Do NOT blame the victim!

      Sorry, although I can agree with most of what Joel Gingery has written, “blame the victim” is going too far. I worked in HR for many years, and was on site at a couple postal shootings, so I have spent much time trying to understand the causes of workplace violence. Certainly people feel inadequate and powerless at work. Of course employees enjoy jobs where they have more control over the work process. Obviously termination procedures need to be handled skillfully. But in the best case, with the perfect job, these kinds of incidents can happen. NEVER is this kind of violence justified and NEVER should it be blamed on the victims.

      In cases I have researched there were some disciplinary issues, but also love triangles, marital issues, addiction, financial problems, both sudden and chronic mental health concerns, and sometimes no real cause could ever be identified. I remember one psychiatrist telling me, “You are trying to make sense out of nonsense.” This was an employee who had just been recognized as employee of the month. He was well liked and respected at work with no performance problems. He killed his wife at home, then came to work and killed co-workers before killing himself. His best friends had no idea there was a problem. So,”blame the victim?”

      In some cases of violence the employer has no idea the employee was troubled, in others the employer had worked diligently with the individual and their psychiatrists offering paid leave for treatment, modified work, and even providing generous disability pensions to no avail.

      For whatever reason, we have a society that is more violent than others. We do not have a good system of mental health treatment – especially for people who do not want help. We allow easy access to lethal weapons. Some industries even have protection policies requiring that an employer must show that an employee is “incorrigible” before they can be fired. That certainly does wonders for ones self image! There is blame enough to go around from society, to legislators, employers, doctors, insurance companies, and even labor unions. Granted, not every employer, co-workers, or bystander is perfect, but there is NO reason to blame the victim.

  7. Submitted by John Ferman on 09/29/2012 - 11:15 am.

    Accent Murders

    As time has passed, it has come to light that Engeldinger bought his guns a year ago and his family has been concerned with his emerging mental problems and he came to Accent Thursday with a Glock. Did the company have a ‘no guns on premises’ policy and sign on the door. If so, was what happened premeditated. Did he have a conceal carry permit. How did he pass the so-called protections in the conceal carry law. Does this episode show the folly of that law.
    We shall never know why he was being fired, but hopefully detailed interviews of co-workers might shed light on the many ‘whys’ of this tragedy.

  8. Submitted by craig furguson on 10/03/2012 - 12:25 pm.

    gun permits private?

    I’m a little confused why MPD declined to say if Engeldinger had a gun permit citing privacy concerns, while the Isanti County Sheriff said that there was “No reason to deny gun permit” to Joseph Kadlec, who was just charged in a road rage incident.

    So is permit information private or public?

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