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Human Capital Risk Series: When the Unthinkable Happens

byLowers & Associates | December 06, 2016

Does it seem like the unthinkable news about another shooter trying to murder as many innocent people as possible has become almost routine? If it feels this way to you, there’s a reason. The number of “active shooter” incidents—cases where one or more assailants kill or attempt to kill people in a populated area—counted by the FBI has increased dramatically since 2000.

In 2000, there was 1 active shooter incident recorded.  There were 20 incidents in both 2014 and 2015.  In all, there have been 200 active shooter incidents since 2000 somewhere in America.

Some people react to these incidents as if they were “black swan” events, that is, unexpected or surprising events that are impossible to predict. But as these data show, they are rare but they are not accidental nor should they be surprising any more. An active shooter may attack in virtually any location at any time people are present.

This is not a swan, it is a known risk, and risks can be mitigated.

From the employer’s perspective, an active shooter is a particularly appalling kind of violence, but it just one of a class of “unthinkable” events that can seriously damage or even destroy a business. Other forms of workplace violence, armed robbery, catastrophic physical plant failures, and terrorism are other rare events whose potential has to be evaluated, planned for, and mitigated.

These low probability risks have potentially extremely high costs, making their expected (negative) value high. Prudent employers will address them.

The Employer’s Obligation

Beyond potential costs, employers are responsible for creating and keeping a safe environment for customers and employees. At the Federal level, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) promotes the General Duty Clause which requires employers to provide a workplace that “is free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm…” As shown above, the “unthinkable” events are recognizable hazards.

At the state level, workers’ compensation laws generally make employers responsible in some way for injuries on the job. And, finally, the threat of negligent hiring lawsuits imposes a universal legal threat if an employer fails to act like a reasonable person would to protect a customer or employee if a hazard is known, or should be known.

Mitigating Unthinkable Risks

The key to preventing a low probability, high cost hazard is through training and simulation that teaches employees how to respond under hyper stressful circumstances.  They will have to respond correctly without the luxury of time in order to survive or neutralize the threat.

The active shooter / active assailant threat is the extreme case that can illustrate the approach.  A risk management program for these threats will include:

Security audit and program: Each low probability, high cost threat will have specific characteristics. The audit and program depend on making an assessment of how the event might unfold to create a kind of stress test of the workplace to envision how the employees or customers might respond to the threat. For an active shooter, the Homeland Security Run. Hide. Fight. guidelines include identifying factors in the environment that give a path to safety.

Training and simulation: Most employees will not have experience handling extreme threat situations. To survive an active assailant, they need to be given training that simulates how the threat might unfold and how to respond to it. The training has to inculcate the notion that the responder has to be able to commit entirely to a survival path and execute it. In the ultimate extreme, this means using improvised weapons with as much force as possible, not something most people know without training.

Whistleblower program: To the extent that knowing WHO the threat is can help to prevent or mitigate an extreme event, a secure whistleblower program can help get critical information. In the case of an active shooter, co-employees might be placed to see the signs of anger or mental illness in a potential shooter that could predict a serious event. The key to this is for managers to make the reports safe, and to follow up carefully to determine if the threat actually exists.

Unthinkable events happen all the time. That makes them an important topic for every organization’s risk management planning.


Lowers & Associates provides comprehensive enterprise risk management solutions to organizations operating in high-risk, highly-regulated environments and organizations that value risk mitigation.
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