Fears of Gun Violence Force Business Owners to Rethink Workplace Safety

‘Stop the bleed’ training, security cameras and locks take root in companies with formerly open doors.

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Photo: Pete Ryan

By Ruth Simon and Chip Cutter - Sept. 22, 2019 6:24 pm ET

Many small-business owners are hardening their defenses as concerns about gun violence escalate.

Thirty-five percent of business owners say they have taken steps to protect against potential shootings or other workplace violence—or plan to do so soon, according to a monthly survey of nearly 800 small companies conducted for The Wall Street Journal by Vistage Worldwide Inc., an executive coaching organization.

Some companies are adding security cameras and replacing open-door policies with buzzers and locks, while others are signing up for advanced first-aid training or making tough choices about allowing weapons at work.

“One can say the chances of [a shooting] happening are slim, but we need to be prepared as much as we can,” said John Marten, president of Shepherd Color Co., a manufacturer of pigments for industrial uses with about 300 employees. “It’s always a balance to find the right place where you can function and live your life,” he added, “but be as safe as you can.”

The Cincinnati-based company has put electronic locks on doors that had been left wide-open during business hours and provided active-shooter training. The company also plans to install surveillance cameras on its 60-acre campus. Limiting access to manufacturing buildings, where material moves via forklift, can be particularly challenging, Mr. Marten said.

A half-dozen Shepherd employees will soon begin “Stop the Bleed” training as part of a national program to teach bystanders how to treat gunshot and other life-threatening wounds before first responders arrive.

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The concerns of small businesses vary widely, said Brink Fidler, president of security-training firm Defend Systems in Nashville, Tenn., which has conducted training programs at dental offices, manufacturers and assisted-living centers, among others. Some business owners worry about how to respond to a disgruntled former colleague, he said. Others fear a domestic dispute spilling into the workplace.

Ken Clark, chief executive of Chenal Family Therapy PLC of Little Rock, Ark., with about 110 employees, said therapists became more concerned about safety following the shooting last year of three mental health workers on the campus of a state-operated veterans facility in California. “When it’s a workplace similar to yours, all of the sudden you pay attention,” he said.

Figuring out the right steps is challenging for a small, fast-growing company that must weigh, for instance, whether to spend money on active-shooter training or something more business-focused like updating its website, Mr. Clark said. Chenal has installed cameras in patient waiting areas and near building doors in some offices, and hopes to soon roll them out in all 17 locations.

Chenal bars clients from bringing weapons to its offices, which have solid-core doors that swing out and are hard to kick in, but employees with appropriate training are free to carry a concealed weapon. Mr. Clark has wrestled with whether he should have a gun.

“I have made what I think is the educated choice: There is more risk in me owning a pistol than in me not having one in the office,” Mr. Clark said. “I am also the kid who gets his foot caught in bike spokes,” he added. “I would be the one shooting myself in the foot.”

Dr. Brian Eichenberg, the owner of a plastic-surgery center in Murrieta, Calif., obtained a concealed-weapons permit in 2015, after the San Bernardino shootings. He started locking the front door to his office the following year after he put up a billboard advertising breast augmentations that triggered a death threat.

“I have a .45-caliber handgun,” he said. “I hope I never use it anywhere.”

Even if small businesses can’t afford their own security staff, they can develop evacuation plans and safety protocols, said Eric Gandy, deputy chief of the Clearwater, Fla., police department, which has conducted about a dozen training presentations at small businesses in the past year.

At bigger companies, workers may be unaware of the presence of a shooter, particularly if they work on a separate floor, Chief Gandy said. Smaller companies, with workers located in proximity, may be able to more quickly identify a threat, but employees are likely to have less time to escape. Chief Gandy advises workers to think creatively, which could mean throwing a chair through a window to escape or using a fire extinguisher as an improvised weapon.

After a 2015 shooting at a nearby community college, Orenco Systems Inc., a manufacturer of wastewater collection and treatment systems in Sutherlin, Ore., signed up for a service that puts a panic button on workers’ smartphones to more quickly notify authorities, said Senior Vice President Jeff Ball. New employees receive active-shooter training when hired and a refresher every six months.

Potential gun violence isn’t the only safety challenge. KBM-Hogue, a contract office furniture dealer with about 120 employees, in May relocated its corporate headquarters to a less visible space after several incidents involving homeless people unsettled employees.

“We made the conscious decision to leave that space, to give up the visibility and move across the street ... just to get everybody away from that feeling of being uncomfortable and unsafe,” said Stan Vuckovich, the company’s chief executive. “Safety shouldn’t factor into making a real-estate decision for your business. It factored in a big way for our business.”

Write to Ruth Simon at ruth.simon@wsj.com and Chip Cutter at chip.cutter@wsj.com