Patchwork of Gun Laws Complicates Workplace Safety Efforts

Jan. 8, 2014

Making sure staff members return safely to their homes is a top priority at many food companies. Usually the focus is on preventing slips and falls. Going home with a cast is bad enough; going home in a body bag is so much worse.

The “No Firearms” sign at the building entrance on ConAgra Foods’ corporate campus caught me by surprise.

My colleague, Dave, and I were in Omaha for a series of interviews with executives and managers at the food company, which was named Food Processing’s Processor of the Year for 2013. Some things seem to go without saying, I thought, chalking it up to Cornhusker quirkiness.

Later in the day, we crossed the Missouri River and entered Iowa, home state of one of ConAgra’s frozen entrée facilities. A sign with the same firearm proviso was posted on the front door of the Council Bluffs, Ia., plant. Providing a safe work environment is flagged as one of the top priorities in ConAgra’s 2013 Citizenship Report, and maybe the signs were just an attempt to err on the side of caution and state the obvious. Then I learned about a fatal incident in November 2012 at the company’s Indianapolis facility, where an employee gunned down a fellow worker outside a break room. Even more chilling was a shooting rampage July 2, 2004, at ConAgra’s Kansas City plant. The gunman pulled two handguns from his locker before opening fire in a break room. The final toll: six dead, two wounded.

When I later broached the subject, a corporate spokeswoman freaked and nixed workplace safety as a topic of discussion. Which was a shame, since this is an issue that companies throughout the industry are confronting. After the 2004 slaughter, the Kansas City plant instituted random bag checks and beefed up security controls, and violence-awareness training was conducted at all ConAgra facilities. Are those efforts ongoing? Has the awareness campaign continued as the corporation acquires and discards production sites? Are there other steps companies can take?

Under court order, Illinois became the last state in the union to institute a concealed carry provision. Within a week, state police granted preliminary approval to 13,064 of the 15,539 applications received. “Employers can stop employees or visitors from bringing firearms into their factories,” notes attorney Paul Starkman, a specialist in employment and workplace law at Pedersen & Houpt in Chicago, but only if they post a sign that meets specific guidelines, including an image of a handgun within a circle with a diagonal slash through it. (ConAgra will have to rework signs at its Illinois properties to comply.) In fact, laws specific to any given state often conflict, making proper signage a challenge for firms with multi-state operations. During a recent trip to five food companies in Northwest Ohio, I saw two paper signs with gun-in-a-circle graphics that may or may not pass muster in another state.

Employers already have lost the right to ban guns in their parking lots. After the Supreme Court ruled that states could not restrict firearms in people’s residences, Oklahoma passed legislation that a vehicle was an extension of a person’s home, and several other states followed suit. “The problem is your car now is on my private property and whether I have the right to control who and what comes on that property,” says Starkman. No definitive appellate court decisions have been made, but several lower courts have sided with individuals over property owners, and he advises clients to drop any parking-lot bans.

In fact, a “crazy quilt of state laws” complicate any efforts to keep deadly weapons out of the workplace, although food companies have more latitude than most employers, says Starkman, citing the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 and the inspection rights it grants firms that prepare products for human consumption. Random searches of lockers and desks are usually allowed, though not vehicle searches, but those activities must be clearly stated policy. “There are questions you can’t even ask” regarding gun possession, with Missouri invoking a complete prohibition, he points out. Generally speaking, Oklahoma and Texas are in “the forefront of anything goes.”

Background checks aimed at weeding out violent offenders from applicant pools are being conducted more frequently, though some states prohibit asking about criminal backgrounds. As with random searches, “the laws are all over the board,” Starkman concludes.

Making sure staff members return safely to their homes is a top priority at many food companies. Usually the focus is on preventing slips and falls. Going home with a cast is bad enough; going home in a body bag is so much worse.