The Sept. 8 killing of Yale graduate student Annie Le, just days before she was to be married, was another harrowing instance of what authorities called "workplace violence."
Police in New Haven, Conn., described Le's strangulation death in a campus lab as part of an increasing national trend in jobsite brutality. "This is not about urban crime, university crime, domestic crime," said New Haven police chief James Lewis on Sept. 17, after authorities arrested Le's co-worker, "but an issue of workplace violence, a growing concern around the country."
Workplace violence is, of course, a broad term that covers a range of behavior, including, in its most extreme form, homicide. According to Larry Barton, a professor of management and president of the American College in Bryn Mawr, Penn., nonfatal workplace assaults and threats of assaults, have indeed seen a recent uptick due in part to stress and depression caused by the weak economy. These are the same reasons that researchers think led to the troubling rise in workplace suicides in 2008, which jumped 28% from the year before to 251.
But as far as homicide goes, federal figures show that rates are down: matching the country's general crime trends, workplace killings have fallen by more than half since the 1990s, tumbling from 1,080 in 1994 to 517 in 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The figure fell 18% from the year before. "I think there is undue anxiety over homicide at work. There's no question," says Barton, who helps train the FBI to prevent workplace violence.
Police have charged Raymond Clark III, 24, a technician who worked in the same medical laboratory as Le. Authorities said Le had not previously reported any threats or harassment on the part of Clark, and the two did not have a relationship outside their professional one. No motive has been given. The vast majority of homicide victims in the U.S. are killed by people they know; among workplace homicides, however, what authorities allege happened to Le being killed by a co-worker is unusual. Experts say most workplace homicides involve retail and service workers killed by strangers during robberies and even in those incidents, customers are more likely to be harmed than workers.
"These are what they call low-frequency, high-intensity incidents," says Daniel B. Kennedy, a forensic consultant and criminal justice professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, referring to Le's murder. "It does not bespeak any sudden wave of violence and homicide at the workplace. It just had a number of unique twists to it."
Although the total number of killings in American workplaces remain relatively low, they still average more than one a day, and the data show that they disproportionately affect women. In recent years homicide has been the leading cause of death of women on the job, says Corinne Peek-Asa, a professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa. Homicide accounted for 26% of female deaths on the workplace last year, federal figures show, compared with just 9% for men. Experts say better safety measures must be implemented to reduce workplace risk. "It's an area where we should be more successful at identifying and preventing violence," Peek-Asa says. "Homicides are the tip of the iceberg."