Back when I was an EHS engineer for a manufacturing facility, a mezzanine was converted to work space for a small team of technicians. One day, their team leader told me the only door to their space opened to the Heat Treat area. In there were several furnaces that burned natural gas. The team leader was concerned that, in case of fire, they would have to exit through the area where the fire was raging. I agreed; an OSHA regulation does require an additional means of egress.

A waste of money

The back of the mezzanine had space for an emergency escape ladder. I found a supplier; it would cost about $2,000, not a lot of money for a large multinational company like ours. To my amazement, all managers thought this was an unnecessary waste of money. The plant had been operating the Heat Treat department for more than 20 years without incident.

The plant manager said he did not have an alternate means of egress from his office. At a safety meeting, the human resources manager sarcastically told me I was taking safety to an extreme because “alternate means of egress was a low priority for OSHA”. All my arguments fell on deaf ears.

Ten months later

One afternoon, large flames roared out of the furnace. I had conducted annual fire extinguisher training for the emergency response team the previous day. One of the responders saw the flames, alerted the ER Team and activated the fire alarm. I found the Heat Treat area filled with extremely thick, black smoke. One of the Heat Treat technicians, a volunteer fire fighter, used a 125-pound fire extinguisher on wheels, in addition to the fire sprinklers, to extinguish the fire quickly, preventing the entire facility from going up in flames. Smoke drifted into the main manufacturing area where more than 200 employees worked and the entire plant had to be evacuated. There were no injuries.

The three employees in the mezzanine, upon hearing the fire alarm, opened the door to the Heat Treat area and found their only exit was blocked by thick, black smoke.  Not knowing that the fire had been extinguished, they held their breath and ran down the stairs to safety. It was a miracle that none of them suffered smoke inhalation. 

“Make it happen”

The cost of the fire: two furnaces damaged, loss of electricity to adjoining manufacturing areas, damage to the facility roof, and a month-long delay in production.  The facility’s insurance policy had a deductible of $100,000 (total costs were several hundred thousand dollars).

I braced myself for an OSHA inspection, but it did not happen. None filed a complaint. We could have been cited with a willful violation for no alternate means of egress and a $70,000 fine.

The day after the fire, the plant manager told me “that emergency escape ladder you wanted to install, make it happen.” Ladders were installed at two mezzanines and the plant’s roof.