The pattern is familiar: Someone goes on a shooting rampage in the workplace, and experts in mental health, law enforcement and the media struggle to find lessons in the aftermath.
That's what happened after four employees were shot to death at the Connecticut Lottery headquarters in 1998 by a disgruntled worker who then turned the gun on himself. The legislature toughened gun laws, and then-Gov. John G. Rowland ordered the state to conduct a security review of all its buildings. He also instituted a zero-tolerance policy for workplace violence.
High-profile incidents of workplace violence around the nation have prompted employers large and small to take similar steps.
Predicting violence in the workplace can be difficult, but in some cases there are signs, said Dr. Harold Schwartz, psychiatrist-in-chief at the Institute of Living in Hartford. Those include an employee who is rigid, inflexible or unwilling to take feedback from supervisors or coworkers, one who is unable to get along with others, or one who abuses alcohol or drugs.
"Those are glaring signs that are missed in the workplace," Schwartz said. He added that people with mental illness are no more likely than others to commit workplace violence unless there is also alcohol and drug abuse.
Schwartz said occurrences of workplace violence across the country are down, possibly because employers are recognizing and addressing issues with employee-assistance programs and other forms of help.
Still, an average of three people are murdered at work each day in the United States, said Larry Barton, an expert in workplace violence who leads training seminars on the subject for the FBI. Few of those homicides, however, are the results of mass shootings.
And experts say most slayings in the workplace are not committed by disgruntled workers. Statistics on workplace homicides include those murdered in the commission of another crime, such as convenience store clerks who are killed during a robbery. Roughly 75 of the 1,000 workplace homicides that occur on average each year are committed by disgruntled workers.
Barton advises employees to take the same approach toward workplace violence that the government takes in encouraging citizens to report suspicious activity at airports and train stations: "If you see something, say something.''
"We don't want to [foster] paranoia at work," Barton said, "but there are warning signs.''
Barton reviewed 1,800 incidents of workplace violence over the past 26 years and concluded that there were signals 71 percent of the time.
State Rep. Michael Lawlor, D- East Haven, who co-chairs the legislature's judiciary committee, said that in 2007, the state put together a comprehensive policy manual on violence in the workplace.
Lots of disgruntled employees never commit an act of violence, he said, but "you have to take this stuff seriously when you have a disgruntled employee who has access to guns."
"You can be aware of the warning signs and you can be aware of the steps you can take to prevent this,'' Lawlor said. "This stuff doesn't cross the minds of a lot of employers until it's too late.''
It is too soon to say whether Omar Thornton, the alleged shooter in Tuesday's slayings, exhibited a pattern of behavior that could have foreshadowed his violent spree, Lawlor said. "Once in a while, there's nothing … it is out of the blue and this may be one of those cases. It's just too early to tell.''
Staff researcher Cristina Bachetti contributed to this story.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun