Are U.S. Postal Service workers more likely to "go postal"?

March 9, 2007

Dear Cecil:

Is it true U.S. Postal Service workers are more likely than other occupations to "go postal" on coworkers? Or is that just a perception from media reporting of these events?

If I may speak on behalf of the nation's media, while we certainly deserve some of the blame for making the postal service sound like a psycho hothouse, you can't stick us with all of it. True, "going postal" is first known to have appeared in print in the St. Petersburg Times of December 17, 1993. However, the newspaper was reporting on a symposium on workplace violence organized by … well, read for yourself: "The symposium was sponsored by the U.S. Postal Service, which has seen so many outbursts that in some circles excessive stress is known as 'going postal.' Thirty-five people have been killed in 11 post office shootings since 1983." In other words, while the USPS didn't coin "going postal," it provided the platform, not to mention the data set, for the term's national media launch.

In fairness, you can't fault the postal service for wanting to get out front on this grim phenomenon. A few incidents as of '93:

  • In 1986 letter carrier Patrick Sherrill killed 14 of his coworkers at the post office in Edmond, Oklahoma, then himself, in the worst mail-related mass murder in the United States.
  • In October 1991 in Ridgewood, New Jersey former postal clerk Joseph Harris shot and killed his old boss, two other USPS employees, and a fourth person more than a year after being fired.
  • A month later in Royal Oak, Michigan, Thomas McIlvane killed four postal employees and himself after the USPS fired him.

Some more recent cases:

  • In 1995, former postal worker Christopher Green killed two postal employees and two customers while robbing a post office in Montclair, New Jersey.
  • In 2006, Jennifer San Marco entered the mail-sorting facility in Goleta, California, where she'd once worked and killed six employees and herself.

These incidents were widely covered in the media, the Sherrill case in particular, for the obvious reason that they were shocking crimes. However, even a casual reading of the facts would tell you the problem was exaggerated, and some news outlets said as much from the start: in the same 1993 symposium story that brought "going postal" into print, St. Pete Times reporter Karl Vick wrote, "Rampages in the workplace … remain a relative rarity." There had been about 1,000 workplace homicides in 1992, but most involved ordinary crimes such as convenience store stickups. The FBI estimated roughly 24 worker/boss killings a year; judging from the reported numbers, the USPS workplace murder rate was about three or four per year — admittedly a sizable fraction of the 24, but still a minuscule percentage of workplace slayings overall. It was the era of downsizing, though, which presumably led to a "toxic work environment," as one consultant put it, and the experts didn't want to talk about armed robbery, they wanted to talk about stopping the rage.

Probably the most conclusive study on U.S. postal homicides is the 2000 "Report of the United States Postal Service Commission on a Safe and Secure Workplace," which gives detailed statistics on the risks of working at the post office compared to other jobs. The study found that from 1992 to 1998, postal workers were only a third as likely to be murdered at work as the average worker. (That may be optimistic; a study by the Centers for Disease Control for 1980-'89 says the rates were about equal.) Most likely to be slain on the job? Taxi drivers and chauffeurs, with a homicide rate more than 121 times that of postal workers, and for that matter five times that of cops.

Of the 15 instances of post office homicide between 1986 and 1989, only four were judged to be purely work-related. Fourteen of the killers had problems such as substance abuse, mental illness, a violent past, or a criminal record, which suggests the USPS could have screened potential employees better. However, given that the agency employs more than 750,000 people and hires 40,000 workers a year, it's tough making a case that things are out of control.

Still, the USPS report suggests that working conditions at the PO are, to say the least, a little tense. Compared to average U.S. workers, the report found postal workers were more likely to be verbally abused by coworkers, much more likely to believe their coworkers held grudges against them, almost twice as likely to say their coworkers had serious mental problems, and four times more likely to agree that "the use of threats or violence is an effective way to get things done in the workplace" and that "many managers and supervisors try to provoke employees to violence." So if "going postal" is a myth, maybe we'd better add "so far."

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