News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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May 29, 2012

State pushing for convenience stores to make safety a higher priority

INDIANAPOLIS — In 2002, after New Mexico forced convenience store owners to put sweeping security measures into place for clerks working late-night hours, the number of robberies dropped by 92 percent. Assaults, murders and other crimes at convenience stores also dropped dramatically.

Now Indiana officials are hoping voluntary compliance with similar safety standards will bring about similar results.

The Indiana Department of Labor is getting ready to launch a major initiative aimed at convenience store owners who employ low-wage, hourly workers in what’s considered a highest-risk occupation.

The initiative, crafted with a convenience store industry association, may push store owners to adopt a range of security measures, from better lighting in their parking lots to bullet-proof enclosures for clerks.

Failure to do so may push legislators into considering mandatory measures like the ones adopted by New Mexico and a handful of others states and localities.

Indiana Department of Labor Commissioner Lori Torres, who’s behind the effort, said there needs to be a “culture of safety” in the convenience store industry.

“No one should have to risk being killed at work,” Torres said.

The push to reduce that risk comes in response to a series of shootings that illustrate why convenience stores are deemed high-risk workplaces by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

An Indianapolis convenience store clerk who was shot in the head during a robbery last October had been robbed while on duty six times since 2008. In 2009, another Indianapolis convenience store clerk who was fatally shot while on duty worked at a store that had been robbed 32 times since 2000.

The 2009 shooting was at a store in a high-crime neighborhood; the 2011 incident was at a store in an affluent neighborhood on the northside of Indianapolis.

“The location doesn’t really matter,” said Rep. Ed DeLaney, an Indianapolis Democrat who’s pushing for stronger workplace safety standards at convenience stores. “People get shot and attacked in the loveliest of neighborhoods.”

Unlike the mining and construction industries — in which specific workplace safety standards are set out by law, the legal safety standards for convenience stores are minimal, Torres said.

In January, she began meeting with representatives of the convenience store industry, urging them to adopt their own “best practices” standards for keeping their workers and customers safe. She urged them to do so or risk having tougher standards imposed on them.

A working group of convenience-store safety managers, state labor department officials, police and others has been meeting ever since; they’re expected to release a report in mid-June that will outline the best safety practices that work. The hope is that it will spur voluntary action from convenience store owners.

Scot Imus, executive director of Indiana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association and part of that working group, said there’s plenty of research out there that shows what works.

Those measures include bright lighting inside and outside the stores; leaving windows clear enough of advertising signs and other clutter so passers-by, including police, can see inside the store; and providing a slotted safe in which clerks slip cash to keep the money in the register down to a minimum.

He’s not convinced that some tougher measures, including those adopted by New Mexico that mandate two clerks are on duty during high-crime times of the night, are needed for all stores.

He wants store owners to be able to choose for themselves what measures to take. “There is no one size fits all,” Imus said.

Imus is convinced many of the members of his association already have adopted better safety practices or will do so soon to ward off the state from imposing mandatory standards. But one of his concerns, shared by both DeLaney and Torres, is that only about half of the state’s 3,000 convenience stores belong to the association that Imus represents.

“I think the Department of Labor has done a good job raising consciousness about the safety issue,” DeLaney said. “But there’s always going to be somebody out there who doesn’t want to spend the little bit of extra money to keep their workers safe.”

Maureen Hayden is the Indiana Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI, the parent company of the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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