Another Plant Safety Issue

If you've been paying attention today, you already know that big news here in the Midwest, besides the snow, is the shooting at the ABB plant in St. Louis. The story is still developing, as we say in the press, and it's dangerous to draw any kind of hard-and-fast conclusions about what has happened or why. Instead, what I've been thinking about in the hours since the story broke is the fact that there's another whole kind of plant security that we have to think about. 

We quite rightly spend a lot of time, effort and money attempting to make sure that our operations are both safe and secure. We don't want assorted crooks, cranks, mopes, wing-nuts and evil-doers messing with our vital computer operations, our process plants, the electrical power grid or other infrastructures. At the same time, responsible companies work just as hard to make sure that employees--and corporate neighbors--are safe, even if the materials used in their plants are flammable, explosive or toxic.

Then things like this morning's events in St. Louis happen. The story seems to be all too familiar. An angry employee who lost control and vented his rage on innocent coworkers. This, unfortunately, isn't the kind of "safety event" that lends itself to management via computer programs, team-building exercises or other "safe plant" programs.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not dissing such efforts. They're important and useful. Companies such as Dow are rightly proud of efforts that lead to more than a year without an accident. But such programs don't seem like much use in the current situation.  

I don't know what the answer is. To channel Bones McCoy, I'm just an editor, Jim, not a seer who can peer into people's minds, which seems to be what is required. 

But surely, short of the kind of ridiculous "security" measures we're all subjected to at airports, there has to be a way to spot these angry, disturbed people before they harm themselves and/or others. How do we tell whether the office grouch is just that, or if some event at home, in the news or on his or her way to work, will cause that grouchiness to morph into something much, much worse?  What about that quiet guy that everybody likes because he never causes trouble? Is he just that laid-back, or is he a psychological bomb ticking away until something sets him off? Is Suzie suffering from clinical depression that can be treated with a combination of drugs and one-on-one therapy, or will that dark cloud that seems to envelop her life finally spawn a thunderstorm of rage that deluges an entire office? There seems to be no good way to know. 

These questions don't lend themselves to computer-generated answers or safety check list solutions. And managers and the folks in HR have enough challenges without having to be responsible for the psychological well-being of every employee. But as stories like the one out of St. Louis today become all too common in every industry, it looks like, along with our infrastructure safety and security programs, we may have to start looking at ways to address these much more nebulous threats as well.