Business summit spotlights workplace safety
By Rich Tenorio
June 24. 2015 2:51PM
Fifteen years later, the murder of seven workers at a company in Wakefield still loomed large as law enforcement officials and business professionals came together for a day of presentations on safety in the workplace in Stoneham.
The Northeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council (NEMLEC) held a Business Safety Summit at Montvale Plaza last Thursday, featuring addresses from Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan and from Shirley Singleton, CEO of Edgewater Technology in Wakefield, where seven employees were fatally shot by a co-worker, Michael McDermott, on Dec. 26, 2000. McDermott is now serving seven life sentences.
The event on Thursday took place less than 24 hours after another tragedy: nine people were killed at a historic African-American church, the Emanuel AME Church, in Charleston, S.C. One of the dead was the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was the church pastor and a state senator.
The accused shooter, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, who is white and allegedly wrote white supremacist statements online, is in police custody.
“I think it reinforces what we’re talking about today, (what happened on Wednesday) night at the church,” Ryan said in an exclusive interview.
In her address to the audience, she said, “There are unconventional workplaces like a church or, in Middlesex County, schools, great institutes of higher learning, that hundreds of people go to in a week.”
She also discussed the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing tragedy, in which three people were killed and over 260 were injured, as an example of workplace violence.
“I was downtown that day,” she told Wicked Local. “Training is like muscle memory. FEMA and medical professionals drill and train. Not one person who made it to the hospital did not survive. Lots of people were at their workplace, certainly. It was an extraordinary (situation) that one hopes we will never see again.”
Ryan, who was appointed Middlesex DA two years ago, has addressed the issue of workplace violence in the past. In 2012, she put together a training program on workplace violence.
Horror in Wakefield
The issue was discussed in detail on Thursday, including a presentation from Shirley Singleton and partner David Clancey, who co-founded Edgewater Technology, where the issue of workplace violence erupted onto the local scene 15 years ago.
As a photo of the bulky, bearded McDermott was shown on the screen, Singleton said of her former co-worker, “This is a picture of someone who ended up murdering seven people. He’s a big man, 6-5. I’m 5-3.”
However, she said, “He was pleasant. He would reach for a coffee cup (for me).”
Clancey said, “Our consulting operations guy said, ‘He’s big, like a mountain man. He seems scary.’ He’d been in the Navy, he had the submarine corps on his resume, but he had two recommendations, one from a longtime employee, he worked in the nuclear power industry…”
“From the point of view that I would turn him down because he had long hair and a beard, if you’re in the tech industry, you probably look a little weird,” Clancey said, noting his own long ponytail. “He worked predominantly at night.”
Singleton even described him putting together a program for a Boston Harbor cruise, joking and sharing cigars with a colleague he eventually killed.
“It’s not always black and white,” she said. “We only saw one incident.”
She said that the company HR administrator, who was one of the seven killed in the shooting, reported that McDermott cracked a dirty joke during a meeting.
In October 2000, the IRS notified Edgewater that he owed $500,000.
Singleton said that while the company offered to work with McDermott and the IRS to find a solution, McDermott turned them down.
The IRS had told McDermott that if the tax issue went unresolved, it would begin garnishing his wages in January under a worst-case scenario.
“He made a list of everybody he was going to kill, Dave and I, everybody that wanted to help (him),” Singleton said. “He came in, he had a 24-hour pass, the night before, he stored guns, liquor and pills in his locker.
“The next day, I was on duty, greeting everybody. I left at 10:45. He started shooting at 11:05. I missed it by 15 minutes. He had a duffel bag, went into the lobby, took out an AK-47, a .32 pistol and a shotgun. He was working his list, execution-style. He hit people in the leg so they couldn’t run and (followed with) shots to the head and back.
“He went through the building. My admin was in my office. She hid under the desk. He had big boots across the wooden floor. He didn’t get us. He certainly got seven of our friends.”
She said that she was on the road when she was told that shots had been fired, and that SWAT teams made it unable for her to go into the building.
“The mill itself [where Edgewater was located] had many entrances,” she said. “That saved lives.”
“People were able to exit different areas,” Clancey said. “I walked in on the scene. That caused a little bit of commotion. I locked everything down permanently.”
“All the employees seemed to congregate at the church across the street,” Singleton said. “They thought I was in the building. There were nine missing. They got ahold of me. I was on my way. I called Dave. We had been purchased by a public company, and I notified the board of directors. They asked, ‘What can we do to help?’”
Wakefield Police Chief Rick Smith saluted Singleton and Edgewater.
“You are a model then and today on how to manage a situation like this,” he said. “There is no playbook, no rules, for a cycle of crisis and chaos. It affected the town of Wakefield and the police department. There was collateral damage. We lost a police officer to suicide five years ago. You should be commended. The first call made by the Wakefield Police Department, other than calling out the cavalry, was to NEMLEC, get them to look at it.”
He noted, “There’s another Edgewater in Wakefield, an office park off 128. We had problems on the morning (of the shooting). There were 10,000 calls from the Edgewater office park confusing them with Edgewater Technology.
“There are a lot of global companies like Edgewater. We reach out to CEOs, HR. Everyone should reach out, have a relationship with companies in Wakefield. What to do when you dismiss someone? Or with a domestic issue? Even in the Wakefield Police Department. Whether you’re a global company or a local police department, it’s a very important relationship.
“I’m proud to be in the position I’m in, and honored to have people like Sharon and Dave in the town I work in.”
Singleton reflected on the years since the tragedy, including making the decision to keep the company name. She noted that only two of 100 employees at the time ended up leaving and that there were no lawsuits. She described being asked questions such as “Why did you hire a murderer?” and “Will you tell us a story about the seven we lost?”
She also recalled the differing ways in which employees reacted during the shooting.
“One had been a general in the service,” she said. “He recognized the sound of bullets. He put (co-workers) under a desk and shielded them with his body.”
A colleague, she said, made the ultimate sacrifice, being killed after facing down McDermott and telling him, “Stop. You know this is not right.”
She also said, “One senior guy had a meltdown. He was not able to help us. I think it’s mixed.”
Workplace risk factors
Other speakers addressed how to address future threats to workplaces, from psychological and technological standpoints.
David Selden of Lahey Health Behavioral Services cited risk factors to watch for, including a history of violence and domestic situations, as well as an increasing fascination with weapons, a fascination with a co-worker, a preoccupation with violent themes, an interest in recently publicized violent events, such as the church shooting in South Carolina, and outbursts of anger.
He also cited workplace risk factors, including understaffing, job overload and compulsory overtime, as well as downsizing and reorganization, labor disputes, poor labor-management relations, a high injury rate or frequent grievances, poor management styles, adequacy of security and a lack of employee counseling.
“Shirley (Singleton) said it’s a family,” Selden said. “You can’t have an us-versus-them (mentality).”
Christian Connors, CEO of Shooter Detection Systems, showed the audience a video clip of how his detection device, which uses sensors and microphones, can identify a gunshot fired inside a building.
He also gave the audience instances of how crucial information can be delayed in informing the police of a shooting.
“The Sandy Hook janitor didn’t know the address,” he said, referring to the elementary school in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adult members of the staff where fatally shot by 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who then committed suicide, on Dec. 14, 2012. “It takes five to six minutes, on average, to receive a 911 call … Police don’t usually have floor plans … Some corporate customers don’t mandate sending information to the police department.”
Given the interest in last week’s summit, it seems employers, and their employees, will be more vigilant in the future.
“Start the foundation for growing practices that will make sense,” Ryan said, “and help to keep people safe.”