A 25-year-old worker put on probation at Modine Manufacturing Corp. in Missouri brings a .40-caliber handgun to work on July 2 and proceeds to kill three people and injure five others before taking his own life.

Six days later, a 48-year-old Lockheed Martin employee, thought to be a ticking time bomb by coworkers, storms out of a sensitivity training class, grabs a shotgun and semiautomatic from his pickup, and begins a rampage that leaves five dead and nine wounded before he fatally shoots himself in the chest.

A man described as a "wonderful" person to work with by coworkers walks into his Century 21 real estate office in San Antonio on July 23 and shoots three women, killing two and critically wounding the third. Hours later, he kills himself on the side of an interstate.

In Delaware on August 9, a 42-year-old man shoots a former supervisor through the window of her home, injuring her. He then knocks on the door of his former boss's house and fatally blasts him in the neck with a shotgun in front of the man's 15-year-old daughter. The killer later turns the gun on himself, and his body is found the next day at the 13th hole of a golf course.

Three days later, one Xerox employee is killed and another wounded in the noontime robbery of a credit union at a sprawling Xerox complex near Rochester, N.Y.

"I used to bank at that credit union," says Sharon Baker, a safety manager for Corning, Inc. "I used to work there. I'll have to find out what happened."

Cracks in the culture?

Sharon's not alone in wondering what's going on. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other authorities have been describing workplace violence as an epidemic for more than a decade, this summer's outburst of rage is startling. Are the murders a coincidence, or a tragic wake-up call to deeper ills in the workplace? Safety and health pros in recent years have been paying more attention to how work cultures influence behavior and attitudes. Is there something in corporate cultures today causing more employees to crack?

ISHN conducted an email poll of about 40 safety and health pros for their comments. "Stress" is the word that kept popping up in responses. Or more appropriately, distress.

"It just doesn't let up," says Sharon Baker. "People do more and more, and don't make the time for relief, or don't know how to blow off steam."

"Some systemic things appear to be at work," says Chip Dawson, a safety consultant who knows a number of employees at the Xerox facility. "People in large numbers are being pushed to the breaking point. Most find a way to deal with it, some turn to violence."

"People are under a lot of stress today," says Ray Colvin, a Birmingham, Ala., area safety manager.

He says his security department in the past few months has tracked behavior bordering on criminal - stalking and in-your-face confrontations. "Something unusual is happening," he says.

What's changed?

Is it? In the 1990s, Northwestern Life Insurance Company reported that one out of four full-time workers had been harassed, threatened or attacked on the job. The American Management Association found that 50 percent of the companies it surveyed experienced incidents or threats of workplace violence in a four-year period. And Cal/OSHA reported that workplace homicides in California increased more than 25 percent from 1992 to 1993, becoming the leading cause of death on the job in the state.

What has worsened, according to some safety experts, is the sense of trust, stability, and security in the workplace. "There's a tremendous amount of frustration," says Ron Hayes, a safety instructor and victim's rights advocate. "There's the belief that nobody cares. People are getting more and more tired of not being appreciated."

Statistics back that up. Monster.com's 2003 Work/Life Balance survey reports 83 percent of Americans are not satisfied with their jobs, and 57 percent believe they are overworked. In the last 10-15 years, consultant Dan Petersen says he's never seen "the number of pissed off and angry people working in companies. It's a no-brainer. You pay less attention to their work, their schedules, people are cross-trained to do stuff they don't want to do."

Safety and health managers should be paying attention, says Sharon Baker. Know something about your employees that goes beyond the workplace, some of the personal factors in their lives, she says.

"We know a very high percentage of people who go postal have precursors," says risk consultant Peter Sandman. "And the precursors are ignored. Is low morale on the safety person's agenda? If it isn't, then he's ignoring a piece of the safety problem that is a bigger piece than it was. Going postal isn't as rare as it used to be."