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Spotting the signs: Workplace violence training critical for prevention, survival

WEST FARGO-Workplace shootings have been a reality ever since "going postal" was first a phrase that grabbed the American imagination decades ago. But in spite of that, only about half of the crowd at the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Comm...

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Fargo Police Lt. Joel Vettel presents the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber program "Identify & Respond to Aggressive Behavior" on Wednesday at Cambria Suites in West Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

WEST FARGO-Workplace shootings have been a reality ever since "going postal" was first a phrase that grabbed the American imagination decades ago.

But in spite of that, only about half of the crowd at the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce workplace violence training session Wednesday had a clear idea of what their workplace's safety procedures were.

That's according to a real-time instant poll conducted, via text message, during the session by Fargo Police Lt. Joel Vettel, who also asked the 100-plus workers there if they'd felt unsafe at work within the past six months.

About 35 percent of respondents said yes. Even so, about half reported they hadn't had any self-defense training in more than a year.

Scanning the room, Vettel asked another question.

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"How many of you are front-desk, like receptionists?" he asked, to a scattering of raised hands. "Yeah, you're dead first," he wisecracked, to general laughter. "Ask for more money."

But the black humor in Vettel's polished presentation serves an important purpose, easing the tension of a difficult topic.

The veteran law enforcement officer began to develop his safety presentation more than a decade ago after the kidnapping, rape and murder of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin in Grand Forks horrified the Red River Valley in 2003.

The night it happened, Sjodin was leaving work at the Columbia Mall, only to be snatched by a registered, violent sex offender.

Since then, Vettel has encouraged businesses to teach their employees how to spot potential warning signs of workplace violence and how to survive an attack if it erupts.

Oddly enough, he said, he's had victims of workplace violence tell him they spotted a colleague or other person nearby who they knew was likely to explode, but never reported it, thinking it wasn't their job.

The numbers reflected in the instant poll didn't surprise him, he said, given how trusting people in the region tend to be.

Fargo police have also been working with local businesses to beef up security features like cameras and alarm systems, as well as training staff, in response to the recent string of armed robberies in the region, Vettel said.

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Seventy percent of workplace fatalities come from robberies, but the rest can be caused by displaced domestic conflict, disgruntled workers and homicide, he said.

"Prevention is the key to me," he said. "This is not a movie. You're not going to kick the gun out of their hand."

Warning signs of potentially violent people in the workplace

  • Risk factors:
  • Direct threats or threatening statements
  • Recent acts of violence
  • Intentionally frightening others
  • Stalking or following others
  • Preoccupation with perceived injustices
  • Contributing factors:
  • Drug or alcohol use (implicated in 80 percent of Fargo's assault incidents)
  • Domestic disputes
  • Self-destructive behaviors
  • Suicide attempts
  • Not taking medications
  • Unstable health or medical issues
  • Unusual or strange behaviors
  • Verbal signs:
  • Angry or threatening tone of voice
  • Threats
  • Unusual demands
  • Irrational talk
  • Cursing, shouting or screaming
  • Defiance/challenge to rules or authority
  • Lewd, sexual or degrading comments
  • Physical signs:
  • Staring or angry looks
  • Clenching jaw or fists
  • Gripping objects tightly
  • "Grooming" or repeatedly touching skin
  • Nervous pacing, restlessness
  • Beating, punching or breaking objects
  • Signs of intoxication

Source: Fargo police

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