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Workplace violence: We can’t stop everything, unfortunately

Fatal stabbings in Edmonton hard to fathom, but could they have been prevented?

By Todd Humber

The news out of Edmonton last week was shocking. A 29-year-old worker at a Loblaws grocery distribution centre donned a military-style vest, walked into his workplace during shift change and began stabbing people.

When the carnage was over, two people — Thierno Bah, 41, and Fitzroy Harris, 50 — were dead and four others were injured. Jayme Pasieka was arrested a couple of hours after the attacks. He was sitting in his car in an industrial area on the other side of the city.

These types of incidents are, thankfully, relatively rare in Canada. And when they do happen — such as the 1999 rampage at OC Transpo where former employee Pierre Lebrun shot six workers, killing four, before turning the gun on himself — the question invariably arises: Could this have been prevented? Were there warning signs?

When Lori Dupont, a nurse in Windsor, Ont., was killed in a murder-suicide by Marc Daniel, a doctor at the hospital she worked at in 2005, Ontario responded with an inquest that ultimately led to the creation of Bill 168, which put considerable onus on employers for the prevention of violence in the workplace.

It’s far too early in the Edmonton Loblaws investigation to know if there were obvious or subtle warning signs the employer might have picked up on. Police haven’t identified a motive yet — at least not publicly — but they are looking for any writing that “indicated workplace conflict, mind set or pre-planning or motive for the incident,” according to the Canadian Press.

Police do say they believe Pasieka was drinking wine before the attack, and court records show he has a history of erratic behaviour, according to CP. In 2010, he was convicted of assault with a weapon and uttering threats and sentenced to 15 months’ probation.

He set a heart-shaped fire on his street. He egged a neighbour’s car, and told police he did this in the name of the Queen. His father says an accident that gave him a concussion scarred him, and made it difficult for him to understand things.

Those are certainly red flags, but it’s a giant leap to go from bizarre behaviour to physically attacking and killing someone. And who knows if any of this bizarre behaviour manifested itself in the workplace? Pasieka might have been a model employee. At this point, we don’t know.

That’s always the most troubling thought in the wake of incidents like this — that, no matter how many measures we put in place, someone who is determined will find a way to create carnage.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to prevent the next attack. Anti-bullying and harassment legislation isn’t perfect. We can never pour enough resources into mental health. No amount of words on paper in the form of a law can stop every aggressor.

But I’d like to think Ontario’s Bill 168 has made a difference. I’d like to think workplace psychological harassment laws across the country making employers proactive, and preventing countless incidents in the process.

In the wake of the deaths of these two men, Alberta needs to take a long, hard look at its legislation, the resources it puts into mental health and the type of assistance employers need in preventing another incident.

We can’t stop every one, but we have to try our best to ensure history doesn't repeat itself.

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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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