On March 25, 1911, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers trying to escape a fire had to jump from eighth, ninth and tenth floor windows after finding doors to stairwells and exits locked. This lock-in by factory owners was quite common at the time, and was meant to prevent workers from taking breaks or stealing. On that tragic day, it prevented workers from fleeing a burning building. The death toll was 146.

In our more enlightened times, owners and managers are keenly aware of the potential danger of failing to provide quick access from a building, right?

Safety v. storage space

Recent OSHA enforcement cases show otherwise. For instance, North American Container Corp. in Adairsville, Georgia was cited for equipping exit doors with sliding locks that could prohibit employees from leaving the facility quickly. At a Unicold Corp. refrigerated food warehouse in Honolulu, OSHA inspectors found nearly every emergency exit door or route locked, blocked, sealed shut, or impossible to use – something the company did in order to gain additional storage space.

If an emergency such as a fire, toxic leak or explosion occurred in your workplace, would your workers be able to get out quickly? Does your building have a sufficient number of emergency exits? Do your personnel know where all of them are, in case the one nearest them has been rendered dangerous or difficult to use (i.e., too close to fire)?

All about exits

OSHA defines an exit route1 as a continuous and unobstructed path of exit travel from any point within a workplace to a place of safety. Normally, a workplace must have at least two exit routes for evacuation purposes, in case one is unusable. Larger buildings or those that hold a significant number of employees require additional exits.

Exit routes should be located as far away as practical from each other in case one is blocked by fire or smoke.

Exit routes must be permanent parts of the workplace.  They must ultimately lead directly outside or to a street, walkway, refuge area, public way, or open space with access to the outside, and these areas must be large enough to accommodate the building occupants likely to use the exit route.

When an exit is not an exit

Employers must provide adequate lighting for exit routes. Easy-to-read “EXIT” signs must be posted, along with signs indicating the direction to the nearest exit. Signs must also be posted on doors or passages that could be mistaken for an exit. A “NOT AN EXIT” or “CLOSET” sign could help someone avoid wasting time in an emergency, when every second counts.

Some of OSHA’s requirements are common sense -- making sure employees don’t travel through a high hazard area when moving along an exit route. Smoke or some other substance could affect visibility, exposing workers to those hazards. Exit routes should be unobstructed and free of highly flammable furnishings. There should be an alarm system to let employees know that they should leave the building, and a way to account for everyone after an evacuation has taken place.

Procedures for emergency evacuations are part of an effective emergency action plan (EAP) – something that all companies should have.

1. www.osha.gov/OshDoc/data_General_Facts/emergency-exit-routes-factsheet.pdf