Going to work has gotten a lot safer in recent years, the government announced yesterday in its annual report on on-the-job fatalities.
Robbery-related homicides in the nation's restaurants and stores dropped by 46 percent, from 530 in 1994 to 286 last year, during a period when the size of the work force was rapidly expanding, according to a report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Labor Department officials and experts on workplace violence credited a mixture of factors, including the booming economy, the general decline in crime, new security measures that have been widely adopted by retail stores, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's voluntary security recommendations, which were announced last year.
Criminologist Ronald D. Hunter, an associate professor at the State University of West Georgia and a former police officer who headed Tallahassee's robbery task force, said academic research conducted in the 1970s and 1980s had helped businesses and government officials devise ways to discourage criminals from preying on retail clerks.
These anti-violence strategies include increasing the number of clerks on the job at the same time, particularly during the late-night hours when crimes are more apt to occur; limiting the cash available on hand; using security cameras and time-release safes; brightly illuminating the parking lot and store interior; removing visual obstructions so that passers-by can easily see inside the store; posting signs indicating that less than $50 in cash is on hand; and training clerks in robbery deterrence techniques and safety measures.
"In Washington, every group will be ready to take credit for this, but it's really been a combination of things," Hunter said.
Guy Toscano, the BLS economist who compiles the fatality statistics each year by combing state and federal injury data and cross-referencing death certificates and worker's compensation records, attributed the decline to the nation's vigorous pace of job creation. "A regular paycheck reduces the incentive for committing robberies," he said.
Not everyone was so pleased, however. Rachel Morris-Clark has vigorously lobbied for tighter government regulations and improved security in convenience stores since her father was shot in the head by a 13-year-old while he was working alone one night in 1994 at a convenience store in Williamsburg. She said it was good that the number of such deaths has declined, but she said it could have happened faster if government officials and retail industry leaders had acted faster in response to the academic research completed 20 years ago.
"They kept saying we need to study it, study it," Morris-Clark said. "This went on for years. How many people have to die?"
Hunter also said that more could be done. "We can't sit on our laurels," he said. "There's still too many deaths."
But many retailers have argued in the past that while such security expenditures make sense in an ideal world, not every business is able to afford them. For example, the suggestion that stores be staffed with more than one worker at all times is difficult for small mom-and-pop enterprises, where spouses rotate back and forth to staff the establishment. And some stores don't have a high-enough sales volume to support double-staffing, retailers say.
Separately, the bureau's report also said the number of on-the-job homicides from all causes dropped 34 percent, to 709 in 1998 from 1,074 in 1993. And the number of fatal workplace injuries nationwide dropped to 6,026 in 1998, down 3 percent from the 6,238 of the previous year.
"It's good news for every family that sends a breadwinner into the workplace and waits for him or her to come home safe and whole at the end of the day," said Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman.
Highway crashes remain the leading cause of on-the-job fatalities, accounting for about one-fourth of all workplace deaths. Slightly more than two-fifths of those killed on the road were employed as truck drivers. Other major causes of death on the job including electrocutions and falls off roofs and scaffolds.
Virginia was one of the few exceptions to the positive national trend. On-the-job fatalities from all causes in the state have risen steadily in the past three years, climbing to 176 in 1998 from 153 in 1996, with most of the deaths caused by auto accidents or assaults and violent acts.
In Maryland and the District, in the same period, such fatalities have fallen, to 78 from 82 in Maryland, and to 13 from 23 in the District. In Maryland, half the deaths were caused by transportation accidents; in the District, almost half were caused by assaults and violent acts.
The number of on-the-job homicides has dropped 34 percent since 1993.
Among occupations with the highest risk of homicide:
Homicide rate per 100,000 workers
Taxicab drivers: 27.5
Sales counter clerks: 5.9
Police, detectives: 4.4
Drivers -- sales workers: 3.1
Sales, supervisors and proprietors: 2.5
Managers, food and lodging places: 2.5
Truck drivers: 0.8
National average: 0.5
SOURCES: Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics