Retail Staff Aren't Security Guards

The 2006 death of gas bar attendant Grant DePatie in Maple Ridge, B.C. sparked an ongoing debate about workplace safety rules. Though it’s been a long time since it happened and the resulting WorksafeBC rule changes for late night retail workers were implemented, it’s well worth remembering this tragedy.

Grant DePatie’s Legacy in the Workplace

Grant DePatie was working late in the evening at an Esso station when two men arrived and filled their vehicle with gas. The tragedy occurred when DePatie attempted to stop them leaving without paying. DePatie was killed after being dragged a lengthy distance by the vehicle. A 16 year old male was charged with second degree murder.

WorksafeBC implemented rules in 2008 requiring all service station customers to either pay in advance or to use a credit card at the pumps. This practice was common at the time in some areas of the United States but was still somewhat rare here. The hope was that by having customers pay for their gas in advance, the sort of situation which ended up killing Grant DePatie wouldn’t recur.

What really led to the death of young Grant was that he must have felt compelled to intervene in the gas theft. As long as employees put their well-being at risk to protect their employer’s assets – regardless of what rules WorkSafeBC implements - these sorts of tragedies will continue to occur.

Retail Employees and Risks of Theft

Employees in all sorts of retail operations are exposed to similar risks every day. Whether they are 16, 40, or 65 years old, chances are they aren’t properly trained and equipped to play the role of a security guard (nor is their pay level likely reflective of the associated risks).

The solution is for employers to understand and accept that retail staff members are not security guards. Employees should not be permitted (or, worse, encouraged) to expose themselves to the sort of risks that Grant DePatie took.

The first step for an employer towards protecting its staff is to recognize the prevention of a theft is not worth a human life. Whether it’s a tank of gas or a bicycle or a bag of cash, saving that item is simply not worth exposing an employee to the risk of serious injury or death.

If you’re an employer and you can’t get over this hurdle, try this little test.

  • Think of any one of your valued employees.
  • Ask yourself how you would feel if he/she were killed preventing the theft of one of your products.
  • Would you wish with all your heart that you could turn back time and tell the employee to “let it go”?
  • I expect you would. (If you wouldn’t, then I really hope I’m never in the position of working for you.)

Dealing with the Risk of Theft

Once an employer has accepted that its products aren’t worth the risk to human life, the next step is to implement a policy compelling employees to take a “hands’ off” approach. Training sessions should be conducted periodically to teach employees how to react when faced with a threat.

The employees should be taught not to intervene, and instead to focus on staying out of harm’s way. Banks have been doing this successfully for decades. (Have you ever seen a bank teller chasing a robber down the street? Of course not.)

So, what can you do if you’re operating a business (such as a retail operation) which is prone to theft? I’m no security expert but there are plenty of options.

Invest in some hardware which will secure your products from theft. All kinds of businesses already do this. Many jewelers, for instance, have doors that can only be opened to customers coming and going by a person inside the store. This prevents people wandering in and making off with products before your staff knows they’re there.

Other businesses have their products securely locked in place – you’ll see this in stores selling expensive products such as leather jackets or bicycles. Many retail operations now have visible video surveillance equipment in place to help identify and deter thieves. And, of course, there’s always insurance.

A 1975 study measured simple techniques such as reducing the amount of cash on premises, posting signs about the low cash availability, clearing windows to increase inward and outward visibility, increasing lighting inside and out, etc. The study showed a resulting 30 percent reduction in robberies at the stores where these steps were implemented.

In 1999, another study found that “interventions” generally recognized as effective deterrents of robbery were significantly related to reduced odds of theft. These included reducing opportunities for concealed escape, increasing visibility to the outside, security systems, and cash handling strategies. A 2000 study in California, utilizing the same types of theft prevention techniques, revealed a rate of reduction of robberies in the range of 30 percent to 84 percent.

Invest in trained security personnel. If you operate a store selling expensive or otherwise desirable items, have a security guard present during operating hours. These people are often former police officers and will be trained properly to handle emergency situations.

Whatever you do, take the onus of preventing theft off your employees. Are these methods of security inexpensive? No. Are they a lot less costly than the loss of an employee’s life? Absolutely. This is worth remembering and regularly repeating to yourself and to your employees.

A Final Note

It (almost) goes without saying that employers cannot penalize their employees by deducting the costs of theft from their wages. Doing so is not only illegal (it’s contrary to the B.C. Employment Standards Act) but it risks placing implied pressure on employees to place themselves at risk by intervening in dangerous situations. Avoiding such a situation would have saved young Grant DePatie’s life.



This item is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to be relied upon as legal advice. Informed legal advice should always be obtained about your specific circumstances.

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