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Empire State Building shooting-like events of workplace violence are rare, getting rarer

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

New York Police Department officers look at a body that is lying on 5th Ave after the shooting at the Empire State Building.

Friday’s fatal shooting outside the Empire State Building in an apparent work-related dispute was a tragedy, but such violence is rare and getting rarer in the American workplace.

Despite the lingering bad economy and job pressures tied to it, work-related homicides dropped 7 percent in 2010 to an all-time low of 518, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Incidents of fatal attacks on co-workers or former co-workers are very rare, accounting for only about 12 percent of annual workplace homicides over the past five years, according to the BLS. The vast majority of work-related homicides are perpetrated by robbers or other assailants, according to government data.

The alleged shooter Friday, who was killed by police, was Jeffrey Johnson, 58. He was laid off about  a year ago from a job with Hazan Imports designing women’s accessories, police Commissioner Raymond Kelley said. The victim was  former co-worker Steve Ercolino, 41, a vice president at the firm, a law enforcement official told NBC News.

Government data confirm that most victims of workplace homicides are men -- 82 percent in 2010. Work-related killings involving women increased 14 percent that year  to 95 but have dropped from a high of 164 in 1998.

Although the number of work-related murders is dropping, it might not feel like it because of the escalation of mass shootings in other settings and the attention they get in the media, says Carol Fredrickson, a workplace violence expert.

“If you took this back 10 or 15 years ago, the media didn’t pick up on” every incident, she says. “My sense is we can’t go past a week” without news of a shooting, she says.

While some companies do an excellent job training human resources and other staff to spot signs that an employee may be potentially violent, many businesses --  especially small ones -- don’t have the time or resources for such programs, Fredrickson says.

Yet such training can pay off.

“Every day I talk to people who saw signs of (potential) workplace violence and it was never reported,” Fredrickson says. “But if those people had all reported those incidents to one person who can identify that there’s a pattern of behavior going on, they can intercede or talk to the employee or former employee before things get out of hand.”

Below, Dr. Judy Kuriansky, and Paul Viollis of Risk Control Strategies, offer CNBC their take on the events.