What is workplace violence?

On August 20, 1986, a part-time letter carrier named Patrick H. Sherrill, facing possible dismissal after a troubled work history, walked into the Edmond, Oklahoma 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 in this period. In just the previous three years, four postal employees were killed by present or former coworkers in separate shootings in Johnston, South Carolina; Anniston, Alabama; and Atlanta, Georgia. The shock of the Edmond killings raised public awareness to the kind of incident now most commonly associated with the phrase “workplace violence” – murder or other violent acts

by a disturbed, aggrieved employee or ex-employee against coworkers or supervisors. An early appearance of the phrase itself in Nexis, a database of articles in many major U.S. newspapers, was in August 1989, in a Los Angeles Times account of yet another post office shooting.

As a result of this seemingly new trend, mass murders in the workplace by unstable employees have become media-intensive events. In fact, the apparent rise in such cases may have been an impression created by this increased media attention. Still, the frequency of episodes following the Edmond post office killings was startling.