Are You Safe at Work?

Some recent incidents highlight the need for federal employees to remain alert to the presence of possible violent actions in their workplaces.

Violence against federal employees and federal contractors seems to be on the rise.

On Aug. 21, former Bureau of Labor Statistics employee Kevin Downing walked into his former employer’s building in New York City, killed a building security guard, and then shot himself.

In July, Mohammad Abdulazeez attacked a military recruiting center at a Chattanooga strip mall in Tennessee and then proceeded to a local Navy operations support center where he killed four Marines and a sailor.

Last November, 49-year-old Larry McQuilliams went on a rampage in Austin, Texas, shooting up a federal courthouse and the Mexican consulate before being shot dead outside Austin police headquarters.

These three incidents point out the dangers for federal employees and contractors. The latest data shows that federal employees suffered 129 work-related deaths in 2013, of which 34 deaths were due to intentional injuries inflicted by another person. These numbers exclude military personnel and federal contractors, who have suffered most of the federal work-related homicides this year so far.

Government Protections

The Federal Protective Service is responsible for the security of the more than 9,500 sites leased or owned by the General Services Administration. FPS employs more than 1,000 law enforcement officers, inspectors, and special agents, as well as utilizing more than 13,000 contract security guards. They respond to 534,000 service calls annually, a number of which involve threats against federal property and persons. Military installations maintain their own security with checkpoints manned by contractors, Department of Defense police, and active duty military personnel. Other agencies have their own federal police forces. These security personnel serve as a first-line of defense but can often become the victims of shooting incidents.

Federal law clearly prohibits the harming of a federal employee in the course of their normal activities, and, of course, anyone committing a homicide can be tried for murder in federal court. Unfortunately, those laws are of little comfort as most shooters are killed or commit suicide before capture.

Personal Safety

There are several options to improve your personal security in federal workplaces.


More than a convenience, teleworking removes the threat to the employee by removing the employee from the workplace. Many of the recent incidents focused on federal facilities, not on individuals, so by working from home, you are less likely to be involved in a workplace incident.

Insist on tight security at your building

It is easy for guards to get too relaxed about the routine of checking people. All the metal detectors and screening devices are useless if not used properly. If you have security at your building, you want the guards to be vigilant and take the danger seriously, for your safety as well as their own.

Don’t linger around the entrances to federal buildings

When you come to work, go through security and head for your office. Federal employees standing outside federal buildings or near entrances are easy targets.

Be careful where you drive a government vehicle

Most GSA vehicles no longer have the logos on the sides of their doors, as they once did, but most still have U.S. government license tags. If you are traveling to an area where federal employees might not be welcomed, it may be prudent to drive your own vehicle or a rental car rather than take the GSA vehicle, if possible.

Have a plan – evacuate or shelter-in-place

Plan what you will do in an emergency. There will be times when it is better to evacuate a building and other times when the best approach is to lock doors and shelter-in-place. Have a plan for either occasion, including access to a phone.

Take all threats seriously

Everyone says things that they do not mean or are taken out of context. Regardless, it is important to stay alert and listen for hints that an individual is planning some violent action.

A word about personal weapons

Unless authorized, federal employees may not carry weapons onto federal property. Nevertheless, some federal employees continue to carry weapons into federal facilities. While visitors may go through metal detectors, often federal employees are exempt from daily checks of their baggage and persons, so they are able to bring in weapons without detection. While security may not know, co-workers often know. Most employees would say carrying a weapon is for their personal protection, but it also poses a threat to both co-workers and managers.

The government continues to provide training and information on workplace violence. In 2013, FPS published a booklet titled Violence in the Federal Workplace: A Guide for Prevention and Response. In 2015, the Department of Energy issued its own guide to workplace violence (DOE P 444.1, Preventing and Responding to all Forms of Violence in the Workplace) .

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson traveled to New York shortly after the incident there to visit with the family of the slain security guard, Idrissa Camara.

“I hope to have the opportunity to express condolences to the family sometime this evening. It’s obviously a tragedy when anyone like this is killed in the line of duty,” Johnson said.

Despite these kind words, the attacks continue. Be safe out there.

About the Author

Michael Wald is a public affairs consultant and writer based in the Atlanta area. He specializes in topics related to government and labor issues. Prior to his retirement from the U.S. Department of Labor, he served as the agency’s Southeast Regional Director of Public Affairs and Southeast Regional Economist.