Originally created 09/16/97

Police from several agencies gather outside the Phelon Co. where a gunman shot and killed four people. RON COCKERILLE/STAFFArea bucks downward death trend



Georgia labor officials told state residents Monday that they were safer than ever on the job, but the claim doesn't hold water in the Augusta-Aiken area, where numbers show workers are more likely to be killed than in previous years.

Monday's carnage at an Aiken manufacturing plant - which left four people dead and sent five more workers to the hospital - was the second such incident in a year in Aiken County. The slaying happened a day before the anniversary of a mass shooting at the state Department of Social Services in North Augusta, which left three caseworkers dead.

Monday's killings bring the workplace death toll to 12 slayings in Aiken County since 1991.

South Carolina already bucks a national trend of decreasing workplace violence. The number of on-the-job slayings in the state sharply increased in 1996, jumping to 24 from 14 in 1995, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Experts have blamed factors as varied as glorification of guns, strained race relations that increase stress levels, and poor education, which leaves people without verbal and negotiating skills that help resolve conflict before it explodes into violence.

Nationally, workplace slayings have fallen over the past two years. On-the-job homicides dropped 12 percent between 1995 and 1996, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

In Georgia, workplace deaths also declined, with 34 slayings in 1996, 48 in 1995 and 68 in 1994, the state Labor Department announced Monday.

But in Richmond County, at least five people were slain on the job in 1996. And in another two deaths, police arrested employees of the dead men, although the killings took place away from the job site. It was the deadliest year on the job since 1992, when five people were slain at work.

Altogether, 18 people have been killed on the job in Richmond County during the past five years. The most recent was Michael Stephenson, 29, a Richmond County Board of Education officer gunned down after responding to a burglary alarm at Jamestown Elementary School on July 15.

"There's not a whole lot you can do about these things other than try to be cognizant of the situations, try to know what's going on around you, try to be aware of employees with problems," said Chief Deputy Ronald Strength of the Richmond County Sheriff's Department.

In the wake of the Department of Social Services shootings in 1996, officials tightened security at the North Augusta office, installing coded door locks and additional security cameras.

Clients are now interviewed in a separate area of the office rather than in the space where employees work. Managers also carry out safety drills and bring in safety experts to discuss security measures.