Violence in the warehouse is rare, which could reflect the success of stakeholders in keeping it that way. Just as rare, it seems, is public discourse surrounding the issue. Few people want to discuss it on or off the record. The Warehouse Education and Research Council (WERC), the leading trade group for warehouse executives, hasn’t published anything on workplace violence since 2002. Then, Barry Brandman, president and CEO of Fair Lawn, New Jersey-based Danbee Investigations, which marks its 50th anniversary next year, devoted four pages of a 64-page warehouse security report to workplace violence. (Most of the report dealt with best practices to combat the much more common episodes of cargo theft and pilferage.)
One red flag, Brandman wrote at the time, was warehouse employees living with problems at home. “At times, domestic problems spill over into the workplace,” he said.
Another warning sign were employees who made threats or were being threatened, Brandman wrote. “While 99 out of 100 threats may not lead to physical harm, it is the one case you overlook that can cause irrevocable damage,” he said.
Brandman urged managers to watch for employees who felt targeted by supervisors or co-workers for unjust criticism or ridicule. Those workers, he wrote, may “eventually retaliate and seek revenge.” A fascination with weapons was also a disaster waiting to happen because the “most significant problems involve violent acts committed with knives, handguns and assault weapons,” Brandman wrote.
A violent episode doesn’t happen overnight, but rather is the last link of a chain of events spread out over a period of time, Brandman wrote. It was essential for companies to spot the “early warning signals” that typically precede an act of violence, he said. At least once a year, managers and supervisors should engage in hands-on training, including role-playing scenarios in which they would put themselves into the shoes of the participants in real-life and stressful scenarios, he said.
Brandman’s words became tragically prescient on April 15, when 19-year-old Jared Scott Hole, armed with two AR-15 style rifles legally purchased last summer, allegedly drove his vehicle into the parking lot of a facility in Indianapolis operated by FedEx Ground, a unit of FedEx Corp., and opened fire in the parking lot and inside the warehouse. When the carnage ended a few minutes later, nine people lay dead, eight of them FedEx employees. The ninth was the alleged shooter, who worked at the facility for three months last year and who authorities said committed suicide. Seven others were injured, including four by gunfire.
The building, adjacent to Indianapolis International Airport, the company’s second-largest air cargo hub after Memphis, Tennessee, is equipped with metal detectors and security turnstiles at its entrance requiring employees to scan their FedEx badges, according to published reports. There were at least 100 people in the facility at the time of the shooting, and many were changing shifts or on dinner breaks, reports said.
It was disclosed that in March 2020 Hole’s mother had warned authorities that he planned to die by what is known as “suicide by cop” and that he had bought a shotgun the day before. The firearm was seized and Hole was immediately taken to a hospital. An investigation was launched but was subsequently closed due to lack of evidence of any criminal violation or a racially motivated extremist ideology, reports said, even though an officer responding to Hole’s mother’s warnings found white supremacist websites on his computer.
Indianapolis police won’t comment on the case, citing the ongoing investigation. FedEx declined comment on any specifics. At this time, Hole’s motives and M.O. are just speculation. What is clear, however, is that he penetrated the defenses of a facility operated by one of the most security-conscious companies not only in transportation but in all of American industry.
Dean Maciuba, who spent 35 years at FedEx in various executive positions, said the company’s robust protocols include uniformed security personnel inside its hubs and terminals, metal detectors at the entrances of its ground sort facilities, extensive background checks on all new employees, thorough managerial training, and deep relationships with national and local law enforcement agencies. In the wake of the shooting, FedEx was criticized for its policy of banning cellphones on the warehouse floor, making it impossible for workers to communicate with the outside world. However, Maciuba said the policy is a necessary safety measure. Facilities have many fast-moving parts that “can kill an employee in an instant” if they are distracted by a mobile device, he said.
“FedEx Ground does not skimp on security,” Maciuba said, an opinion echoed by two others in the industry who otherwise declined comment on the incident.
A warehouse industry executive who sought anonymity to speak candidly said that not all warehouse parking lots are gated and manned by security personnel. Some facilities provide relatively open access to the property, according to the executive. What’s more, policing every worker entering and leaving a property can be problematic because it involves tracking hundreds of employees who are manning three shifts in a 24-hour cycle, the executive said.
“The fact is that you can’t protect everything,” the executive said.
Preventing the type of violence witnessed in Indianapolis often begins during the employee vetting process. Here, too, the solutions aren’t cut and dried. Brian Devine, who runs Prologistix, a company that hires and places warehouse workers with the company’s clients, looks for a history of violent crime as well as incidents of cargo theft. However, Prologistix’s database is programmed to flag convictions. It may not have caught Hole, who doesn’t appear to have been convicted of any crime before the shooting.
Devine said the increasing use of automation has made the vetting process more productive, effective and efficient, all key factors considering that warehouse labor is expanding as more fulfillment centers are built to support the tremendous spike in e-commerce. In years past, experts like Devine would have to visit courthouses to obtain relevant information on a prospective employee.
Mass shootings in the warehouse industry are rarities, which is what made the Indianapolis shootings such a stunning development, according to Devine. “Companies are doing what they can” to safeguard employees, and “they do a very good job of it,” he said.