Originally created 09/17/97

Co-workers ignored threats



When Arthur Hastings Wise told co-workers he'd be back to the Aiken manufacturing plant where he'd been fired, no one paid much attention when he said it wasn't over.

It was one of the worst things they could have done.

"Any time that a threat is made, it needs to be taken seriously," said Bob Peck, administrator for voluntary programs at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in South Carolina. "The one you overlook is the one that's going to be carried out."

Employees who fled the R.E. Phelon Co. plant Monday afternoon as a gunman opened fire, killing four people and wounding three others, spoke of the ominous statements made by Mr. Wise. A spokesman for the Aiken County Sheriff's Department wouldn't confirm their stories Tuesday, but said the company never notified police about a problem with Mr. Wise, who has been charged with murder.

"It's not just the employer's responsibility, it's also the employees' responsibility," sheriff's Lt. Michael Frank said. "When threats are made, they need to be taken seriously. They need to be investigated. It's not unusual for our deputies to respond to calls about threats and harassment."

Developing a policy to report threats is an important step in keeping a work place safe, security advocates said. Procedures for dealing with threats should be part of violence prevention strategies, along with control measures such as alarms and checkpoints that limit access into buildings, Mr. Peck said.

At the state Department of Social Services office in North Augusta, where three caseworkers were gunned down a year ago, workers are quicker to pick up the telephone and call police when a disgruntled client makes a threat, site manager Laurie Hobbs said in a recent interview.

"I think it made all of us more attuned to when people say things like that," Ms. Hobbs said a few weeks ago, as the anniversary of the shootings approached. "It's different than before. Now, we do call the police in. We feel we need to let the public know that's not acceptable behavior."

No security procedures are mandated by OSHA and the agency has not issued guidelines for manufacturers, unlike health workers and restaurant workers, who have jobs that are statistically high-risk, said Jim Knight, an OSHA spokesman in South Carolina. OSHA offers voluntary programs to help employers increase security on the job site, he said.

Suggested procedures include a risk assessment by local law enforcement officers or private security companies and development of an internal security committee made up of human resources workers, legal staff, security officers and representatives for workers and management, Mr. Peck said.

Other strategies include screening employees before they are hired, offering counseling services to employees under stress and training managers to recognize and defuse conflicts.

Companies also may decide to use control devices such as identification badges that mark who is authorized to be in a building, coded doors that limit access - and can be changed if disgruntled eomployees leave the job - and security cameras, Mr. Peck said.

Each company should come up with an individual plan at an appropriate level of security, he added.

"You're balancing privacy rights with security issues," he said. "It's a sticky situation. People don't want to have to go through a metal detector to get into the doughnut shop."

Phelon workers have to wear employee badges and access to the plant is limited to the main gate, where two unarmed guards were on duty when the gunman pulled up and shot one, wounding him, company owner Dale Phelon said Tuesday. Once inside the plant, there is free access to most areas, Mr. Phelon said.

"Our security is more than adequate. ... We're not run like a prison," he said. "We don't feel that is an issue."

Company managers hadn't received any complaints from workers concerned about their safety, he added. He couldn't say Tuesday whether security procedures would be changed or if guards would be armed in the future. He refused to answer more specific questions about security at Phelon.

Past shootings

Here is a chronology of fatal shootings at Augusta area workplaces and schools:

Sept. 15, 1997 - R.E. Phelon Inc. in Aiken - Arthur Hastings Wise, 43, a former employee, was arrested in the shooting deaths of four people. Three others were injured.

Sept. 16, 1996 - Aiken County Department of Social Services in North Augusta - David Mark Hill, 37, is awaiting trial for the shooting death of three social workers.

Oct. 13, 1995 - Blackville-Hilda High School near Blackvill, S.C., and Hilda, S.C. - Toby Sincino, then 16, while on suspension, returned to the school with a gun, killing a teacher and wounding another. He then killed himself.

March 18, 1993 - Harlem High School - Edward Bryant Gillom, then 15, went to school armed with a gun, killing a schoolmate and wounding another student. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

Oct. 8, 1991 - Community Mental Health Center in Augusta - Stephen James Lawrence, a mental patient, is serving a life sentence for shooting at the center, leaving one dead and four injured.

Sept. 26, 1988 - Oakland Elementary School in Greenwood, S.C. - Jamie Wilson, then 19, received the death penalty for the murder of three third-graders. He wounded seven other students and two teachers during a shooting spree.

May 27, 1987 - Navy Recruiting Station at Southgate Shopping Center - George Irvin Cail walked into the office and opened fire, killing one man and injuring another. Mr. Cail was committed to a mental institution.

Aug. 19, 1983 - Johnston, S.C., Post Office - Perry Bush Smith, then 55, a former mail carrier, shot to death Johnston's postmaster and wounded a Johnston police officer and two other postal workers.