The May 2000 massacre of Wendy's employees in Queens, N.Y., that left five employees dead and two seriously injured and in which the robbers also stole the surveillance tape, illustrated the dangers that retail employees face every day. While most retail workers go to work and come home unscathed, a surprising number of violent crimes do occur in retail establishments.
In fact, in the same year that the Wendy's massacre occurred, there were a total of 674 workplace homicides, which accounted for 11 percent of the total 5,915 fatal work injuries in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries. The figures show that the highest number of non-fatal violent workplace incidents aren't in the industries you would expect, such as construction, agriculture or mining -- rather, they're in the retail trade and service industries.
PROTECTING WORKERS AT CLOSING TIME
Obviously, with so many violent incidents occurring each day, retailers must take steps to protect workers. Many of the more obvious ones will already be in place, such as CCTV and the presence of security guards. But other techniques that depend more on common sense should also be implemented, especially during store closing, when workers are particularly vulnerable.
Taking the time to ensure that employees are protected against the dangers inherent at closing can pay off in a big way. This basic checklist can be modified to suit your individual store's needs:
- Once closing time arrives, the doors should be locked and a guard or employee assigned to open the doors only to allow remaining customers to exit. No one should be allowed to enter or re-enter the store after the official closing hour.
- Once all customers appear to have left the store, a team of at least two employees or guards should check restrooms, dressing rooms or any other place that bad guys could try to secrete themselves, or "hide in," waiting for an opportunity to burglarize the store once everyone else has left the building.
- Workers should leave in pairs at a minimum. As they exit the building, a manager checks their bags to ensure that any of the store's items have been properly paid for and recorded. The same manager keeps an eye out from inside the store to ensure that all workers reach their cars safely. This task does double-duty: It ensures the safety of the staff as they leave the store and allows the manager to watch for any employee who makes a stop at a garbage can or in the freight area to retrieve any stolen items that have been concealed there.
- If the parking area is very large, employees should be encouraged to go together to the closest vehicle and have that driver drop the others at their cars. The employee playing chauffeur should wait until each person has started the car and pulled out to ensure that no one gets stuck in a deserted lot. If the employees walk, rather than drive, from the store, they should be encouraged to go in pairs or groups.
Once most of the staff has gone home, managers or other employees often have to perform certain closing procedures, usually having to do with cash accounting. One person should not stay alone in the store to do the tally and prepare the deposit. The buddy system must be in place to protect workers who are closing. A lone employee is an excellent target for a robber who is familiar with the store's procedures and who uses the isolation as a way to steal. There is always the potential for the employee to be injured or killed in the process.
Once the cash accounting is completed and it is time to make a bank deposit, employees should also pre-plan to perform this task in pairs to protect themselves and to reduce the opportunities for robbers to relieve them of the money. A bank bag is a juicy target for a thief, so the person carrying the bag should conceal it by hiding it in a pocketbook or a briefcase, slipping it into the waistband of slacks or a skirt and covering it with a coat or long shirt -- or even tucking it into a coffee-stained paper take-out bag.
If the bank is within walking distance, another employee follows the one carrying the bank bag and keeps an eye out for anything unusual, such as someone trailing or paying too much attention to the employee with the bag. Thieves can also work in pairs. One of them may distract the person with the bag by spilling something obvious, such as ketchup, on the person's clothing. While the bad guy is apologizing and trying to help clean up the mess -- really, while he's distracting the victim -- his partner steals the bank bag. If a scenario like this one should occur, the employee who's following can use a cell phone to call police.
If the bank is far enough away that the employee must drive there, the second employee should follow in another vehicle. Again, the idea is to keep an eye out for trouble and to call for help should anything go wrong.
IN THE EVENT OF TROUBLE
If a robbery should be attempted despite everyone's best efforts to prevent it, employees should be trained to keep their wits about them and adhere to a few basic procedures. The most important is, of course, to give robbers whatever they demand without arguing or fighting. No one's life or health is worth the cost of merchandise or cash.
Employees who are faced with the business end of a weapon are obviously under a great deal of stress. They should be trained not to volunteer additional information, such as saying something like, "There's more cash in the safe in the back. Do you want me to open it?" Instead, they would be better off trying to concentrate on memorizing a good description of the robber: observing the color of hair and eyes, any distinguishing marks or features, clothing and any accent the person might have, as well as a description of any vehicle used. Also, they should observe anything that the robbers touch, as it may be possible to collect fingerprint evidence.
The police should obviously be contacted as soon as possible. While awaiting their arrival, witnesses should be instructed to write down what happened quickly and without consulting one another. This information will be most accurate if it is given individually and as soon as possible.
WHY PROTECT WORKERS?
Many employers and managers will want to know why they should invest additional time or money to do more to protect workers. Aside from the moral responsibility to safeguard employees, there are excellent financial and legal reasons to do so as well. Injured employees, or the families of workers killed on the job, may seek compensation from an employer they feel did not adequately protect the worker. Lawsuits are time-consuming and expensive, and may result in hefty penalties, fines or damages assessed against the store.
OSHA addresses the issue of workplace violence under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. The extent of an employer's obligation to address workplace violence is governed by the General Duty Clause, which provides that "Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees."
A Sample Workplace Violence Prevention Program from OSHA can be found in the book "The Retail Manager's Guide to Crime and Loss Prevention: Protecting Your Business from Theft, Loss and Violence," which can be found at www.retailmanagersguide.com.
By implementing some common-sense procedures and encouraging employees to team up to protect each other, employers can do their part to reduce the number of violent incidents that occur in their stores.
Editor's Note: This information is not meant to be an exhaustive list of safety procedures for retail operations. For information tailored to your specific requirements, contact your local police department.
About the author: Liz Martinez is the author of "The Retail Manager's Guide to Crime and Loss Prevention: Protecting Your Business from Theft, Fraud and Violence" (2004, Looseleaf Law), and is a retail security/loss prevention consultant and an instructor at Interboro Institute in New York City. She can be reached through her website at www.retailmanagersguide.com.