In October 2011, Scott Evans Dekraai opened fire in the crowded Seal Beach, California salon where his ex-wife worked, killing her and seven other people, including clients and coworkers. The two were involved in an ugly divorce and custody battle, and Dekraai had a history of domestic violence. The shooting was one day after a court date for the custody fight over their son.
Almost exactly one year later, in October 2012, Radcliffe F. Haughton opened fire inside a day spa in Brookfield, Wisconsin, killing three women, including his estranged wife. The police had previously handled domestic disturbances at their home, and weeks before the shooting she got a temporary restraining order against him. It wasn’t enough.
Just weeks after Haughton killed his wife, Medicaid caseworker Stephanie Ross was visiting a client, Lucious Smith, at his apartment to make sure he took his medications for mental illness. Smith chased her down with a large butcher knife and fatally stabbed her.
All told in 2012, 351 women died on the job. The leading cause of death was homicide – 28 percent were murdered, a sharp increase from the 8 percent killed at work in 2011. While far more men die on the job than women overall – 4,277 were killed at work that year – just 9 percent are murdered.
Why are so many women victims of homicide at work? The answer comes down to two different factors: First, they are frequently targeted at their places of employment by abusive partners, and, second, they tend to work in health care jobs that expose them to patients who may take a violent turn under loosely controlled conditions.
Around the same time when Stephanie Ross was stabbed by Lucious Smith , Hope M. Tiesman of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and four other researchers were conducting a study that looked at data on workplace homicides against women between 2003 and 2008. They found that while the leading cause was criminal intent – someone committing a crime such as a robbery – following closely behind were women who were killed by someone they knew, making up a third of all homicides on the job. The majority of these killers were intimate partners.
“There were about 142 intimate partner violence-related homicides in the workplace for those six years,” she told ThinkProgress. That means around two women were killed every month by a husband, boyfriend, or ex. Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, collected in the years since the study was completed, show that about 30-35 percent of women’s deaths are violence-related, she said, which means the trend is holding steady.
Many violent partners target women at work because they know that’s where to find them. “A woman who gets ready to leave a partner who is being violent with her can move out of a house, move into different situations, but a lot need employment, so they stay in the same job,” Tiesman said. “That makes the workplace a very easy target.” And she and her fellow researchers found that it’s no coincidence that so many stories of men killing their partners take place at salons: One of the jobs that was at high risk for violence was personal care providers. They hypothesized that such workplaces may be at particular risk given how open they are to the general public, making it easy for abusers to access them.
These homicides at the hands of an intimate partner don’t look like most workplace killings. Most occur in parking lots and public buildings, the study found. And while most workplace murders overall happen late at night, particularly in retail jobs, domestic violence is different. “Over half occurred during the day, normal business hours,” she said. “In broad daylight.”
Even when intimate partner violence isn’t at play, though, the murders of women at work may also look different than the typical idea of a cashier or gas station attendant robbed and killed late at night. While it’s hard to say for sure why homicides are increasing for working women, conclusions can be extrapolated from the data on the serious work injuries women sustain on the job. Often, those injuries are the result of a violent attack. Women tend to hold jobs in nursing, psychiatric or home health aides; registered nurses; and health practitioners, and these all take the lead for jobs with the highest rates of serious injuries and illnesses. The leading perpetrator of injuries to women in these professions is their patients.
In these jobs, “people are interacting with patients almost completely,” Rebecca Reindel, senior safety & health specialist at the AFL-CIO, pointed out. “A lot of these workers are in a home health care service or a psychiatric facility or an emergency room, so it’s maybe not necessarily a really well controlled environment.”
“There seems to be a lack of control [in women’s workplaces] and a lack of serious attention devoted to this issue,” Reindel added, and that may mean that these murders are going unaddressed.
“Homicides among women have generally been ignored,” Tiesman agreed. “When we talk about homicides in the workplace, everyone thinks men.” And by sheer volume this makes a lot of sense. But, since murders perpetrated against women look different, they may need different interventions to prevent them.
The deaths of women in health care at the hands of their patients “are definitely preventable,” Reindel said. “There are controls you can put in place, staffing, training, that could prevent someone from being attacked.” She noted that several state laws have been passed with a specific focus on hospital or nursing home workers to protect them from violence. In California, for example, a few days after two nurses were stabbed at work a state Senate committee passed a bill aimed at protecting hospital and health care workers from violence by requiring employers to establish violence prevention plans.
Thay may not be the same for domestic violence. When Tiesman looked at training programs to prevent violence, “all interventions and evidence-based policies we have out there aren’t really applicable to these kinds of situations,” she said. Only about 15 percent of employers have a workplace policy that specifically addresses domestic violence.
One problem that confronts victims is that they may fear being fired or retaliated against if they bring up their situations with an employer. “They don’t want to be a problem employee,” she explained. And they have few legal protections if that’s what their employer thinks of them. In 44 states, it’s completely legal to fire someone for being the victim of domestic violence. A federal bill was introduced to protect all workers from being fired because of their abuse, but it hasn’t gone anywhere.