The death toll this past week was nine, all unsuspecting victims gunned down as they began another day on the job, by yet another cast of well-armed men gone mad in the workplace.
A Xerox warehouse in Honolulu. A shipyard in Seattle. A brokerage firm in Atlanta. An air-conditioning supply company in Pelham, Ala. A medical center in Anaheim, Calif.
On the grim list goes one shooting rampage after another, most with haunting similarities, all planting deep new fear along assembly lines and in office cubicles and boardrooms.
"This problem is spreading to a whole spectrum of companies now," said Steve Kaufer, the founder of the Workplace Violence Research Institute, based in Palm Springs, Calif. "And it looks like it's not going away."
John Challenger, who leads a consulting firm in Chicago that focuses on issues in the workplace, said that violence there is no longer "mostly confined to low-paying government offices, like the U.S. Postal Service. 'Going postal' has turned into going private sector."
Across the nation, an entire industry is emerging to fight the threat of workplace violence, stoked by thousands of businesses--from Fortune 500 giants to corner stores--worried that dismissing or demoting a worker could prove deadly and ever more desperate to spot the next Byran K. Uyesugi, who last Tuesday allegedly opened fire on Xerox co-workers in Hawaii.
Until then, Uyesugi, 40, was just another face in the crowd at a Xerox warehouse in Honolulu, a 15-year veteran who repaired copiers and apparently was convinced that he was on the verge of getting laid off. Now Uyesugi is accused of killing seven of co-workers, the worst mass murder in Hawaii. He has pleaded not guilty.
And one day later, a man showed up at a Seattle shipyard and without a word shot four people, killing two. He remains at large.
Yet for all the growing alarm over such bloody sprees in the workplace, they remain rare. In fact, there is evidence that they are not soaring in number every year, contrary to perceptions.
Homicide is the second-leading cause of workplace death in the nation, but it's at its lowest point in seven years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1998, 709 people were slain on the job, down from 860 the previous year. Most of the killings occurred during store robberies. A closer look at the government statistics shows that the number of deadly assaults in the workplace by enraged co-workers, customers or clients is a much lower and fairly stable figure.
Last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded 98 such killings nationwide, 17 more than the previous year, yet almost on par with the annual average from the past six years of 105 victims. Figures for this year are not yet available.
"These type of incidents still account for only about 10 percent of workplace homicides," said William Weber, the BLS assistant commissioner of safety, health and working conditions. "It's more the high-visibility and shocking nature of the incidents, rather than the numbers, that are driving all the concern."
But homicide totals do not tell the full story of how tense workplaces across the country seem to be getting. There were also hundreds of nonfatal shootings and stabbings of workers on the job last year, and more than 8,000 serious assaults, according to labor statistics. And national polls show that workplace anger or frustration is rising, even in these good economic times.
Part of the problem, analysts say, may even be rooted in the prosperity and growing diversity of the American workplace. At no point in the nation's history have so many men and women of different races and classes worked alongside each other.
"As good a sign as that is," Challenger said, "it can bring more potential for resentment and conflict."
Criminologists also suspect that a copycat effect may be at work in some of the most recent mass workplace killings. They contend that the immediacy and depth of television news coverage of the incidents can influence the actions of someone who is in profound despair and looking for inspiration to unleash a grudge or avenge a perceived injustice. Several shooting rampages in offices this year, including the pair this week in Honolulu and Seattle, have taken place only a day or so apart.
Under great pressure from nervous employees, and apprehensive about the possible liabilities of not doing enough to try to prevent violence, a growing number of companies are sending managers and their rank-and-file to elaborate new training programs on how to spot and defuse potential killers in the workplace. Other firms are mandating conflict resolution programs for feuding or short-fused colleagues. Some corporations are even enlisting top specialists in behavioral science to help assess the risks of firing or demoting employees whom they suspect could react violently.
One such organization is the Academy Group, based in Manassas, Va. It is a team of former FBI and Secret Service agents that counsel several hundred large corporations on the nuances and misperceptions of workplace violence.
John Nicoletti, a former police psychologist who runs a similar consulting group in the Denver area, said that workplace shootings are unique because "the perpetrators almost always somehow tell you before they commit it."
"The biggest myth in this whole area is that someone one day just snaps," Nicoletti said. "But even when you see the signs, it's usually a very complicated situation, and there is no magic pill for it."
And although the overall number of victims in on-the-job killings is much the same as it was earlier this decade, Nicoletti and other specialists in his field say they see one growing phenomenon: An angry employee fatally shooting co-workers with whom he has no direct grievance. In the past, criminologists say, many workplace killings would have the same headline: Worker Kills Boss. There even may be fewer violent workplace incidents now, "but the body count from each of them is getting higher," Nicoletti said.
The worst example of that trend this year occurred in Atlanta, when 44-year-old Mark Barton, distraught from suffering heavy losses in the stock market and domestic problems, walked quietly into two brokerage firms and started shooting. He killed nine workers there last summer, wounded 12 more, then took his own life. He also killed his wife and two children.
Barton's rampage illustrates the difficulties of predicting some workplace violence. He apparently had not gone to either brokerage office to complain first; he simply showed up firing. Just as a man in Anaheim, Calif., who was upset by the sudden death of his mother did a few months ago when he randomly shot and killed three employees at the medical center where she had been treated.
In Honolulu, however, the emerging portrait of Uyesugi in some ways fits the profile of the kind of person behavioral specialists say companies worried about workplace violence should watch most closely. He is being described as a quiet loner who collected guns, and his father has told reporters that he had been required by his employer years ago to get counseling to keep his anger in check. He also had been arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol.
"As more comes out about him, I'm sure there will be co-workers who say they thought something was peculiar about him, but that they just didn't know how or where to report that feeling," Kaufer said. "You hear the same things in all of these cases. And it shows how many companies have to work much harder on this."
Special correspondent Cassandra Stern contributed to this report.
CAPTION: In Seattle, police search neighborhood door to door for gunman in camouflage clothing who attacked shipyard office, killing two and wounding two.
CAPTION: In Honolulu, Byran Uyesugi is held after seven were shot at warehouse.