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Personal safety

August 1, 2009

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Dark alleys and crowded city streets may get all the attention for being prime locations for muggers and other dangerous individuals, but parking lots are no less dangerous. In fact, an employee could be even more vulnerable in a parking lot, according to personal safety expert J.J. Bittenbinder.

“A lot of times people are distracted,” he said of people walking to their vehicles. “They’re not paying attention.” Bittenbinder, a 30-plus-year veteran law enforcement officer for the City of Chicago and Cook County, IL, stressed that people need to stay aware of their surroundings, even in parking lots. Every vehicle offers a place for a would-be attacker to hide.

Employees who share parking lots with customers are often told to park on the far end of the lot so consumers can have the spots closest to the facility. That, Bittenbinder said, is not good advice. “Those people who close up the store, you want them to have the shortest walk,” he said. A shorter walk to a vehicle late in the evening means a reduced chance of an attack.

James Solomon, program development and training director for the National Safety Council’s Driver and Roadway Safety Department, said employees who work late should move their vehicles closer to the front door at the end of the day when most other workers are leaving for home. When those late-night workers do eventually leave for the day, they should leave as a group. If only one employee is staying late, he or she should ask for a security escort.

When walking through the lot, an employee should not identify his or her vehicle until reaching it. Once there, Bittenbinder said, the employee should quickly turn to the vehicle, unlock it, climb in and immediately lock the doors. The keys should be in the employee’s hands as he or she is walking to the vehicle, and the employee should be equipped with a debilitating spray, such as pepper spray, in case of an attack, he recommends.

Parking garages can be even more dangerous because they are more confined than open lots. Bittenbinder recommended traveling to vehicles with other people. If parked on separate floors, workers should walk together to one employee’s vehicle. That employee can then drive other workers to their own vehicles and ensure they enter their cars safely.

Bittenbinder recommended employers install adequate lighting in parking lots. He noted that panic buttons are also helpful as long as employees know where the buttons are and do not hesitate to use them – even if they just feel uncomfortable by someone’s presence in the parking area.

“You hit that button, the alarm will go off, and if that guy is being naughty, he’s going to run away,” Bittenbinder said.

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