Emergency Preparedness and Response, Enforcement and Inspection, Training

The Way to the Egress: A Guide to Workplace Evacuations, Part 2

In Part 1 of this two-part series on workplace evacuations, we share the importance of building an effective Emergency Action Plan and establishing a safety strategy to address various emergency scenarios. Continuing coverage into Part 2 of this evacuation primer, we now provide a closer look at the safety requirements for establishing exit routes and introduce best practices for disaster preparedness methods.

Emergency evacuation exit

Exit Route Regulation, Enforcement

Means of egress, or emergency exits, are a foundational worker safety protection. The March 25, 1911, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire led to 146 worker deaths when factory workers, primarily young women who recently emigrated from Europe, could not escape because factory doors were locked as a theft-prevention measure.

OSHA regularly cites employers for blocked exit routes. Last fall, OSHA reached a settlement agreement with Target Corporation, resolving several exit route citations before the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. The company agreed to correct exit access and storage hazards in 200 stores and pay $464,750 in penalties to resolve a series of 8 cases before the review commission.

OSHA had cited Target locations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York for numerous violations involving blocked or obstructed access to emergency exits and fire exit routes and/or unsafe storage of materials in stores’ backrooms and storage areas.

Federal OSHA inspectors also have repeatedly cited Dollar Tree Stores locations throughout the country for similar violations:

  • In September 2019, OSHA cited 4 Idaho Dollar Tree locations for blocked walkways and exit routes and unsafe storage of merchandise, proposing penalties totaling $898,682.
  • The agency then cited a Dollar Tree store location in Elmira, New York, for obstructed exit routes, as well as blocked electrical panels and unsafe materials storage, seeking $208,368 in proposed penalties.
  • OSHA then cited Dollar Tree Stores for exit, storage, and fire hazards at a store in Boston, Massachusetts, seeking $523,745 in penalties, and exit and storage hazards at a store located in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, seeking $296,861 in penalties.
  • The agency cited Dollar Tree Stores again this past spring for repeat, serious violations at its Beverly Hills, Florida, store, including blocked exit routes and improperly stacked boxes and other materials, seeking $265,265 in proposed penalties.

Under OSHA regulations, most workplaces must have at least two designated exit routes. Additional routes may be necessary for a larger workforce or building size or a workspace configuration that would impede the safe exit of all employees, customers, and visitors during an emergency. Exit access must be at least 28 inches wide, and ceilings of exit routes must be at least 7 feet, 6 inches high. Exit doors must be unlocked from the inside.

OSHA regulations governing exits and exit routes also include requirements that:

  • Exit routes remain free of explosive or highly flammable furnishings and other decorations, and exit route doors must be free of decorations or signs that would obscure the visibility of the doors.
  • If the direction of exit access and exit discharge is not immediately apparent, signs must be posted indicating the direction of travel.
  • Doors along the exit access that could be mistaken for exit doors must be marked “Not an Exit” or with a sign identifying their use, such as “Closet.”
  • Exit routes must be separated by fire-resistant materials and fire-retardant paints or solutions along the exit access and must be renewed often enough to maintain their fire-retardant properties.
  • Exit routes must be maintained during any alteration or renovation, construction, or repairs.
  • Exit routes must be arranged so employees will not have to travel toward a high-hazard area, unless the path of travel is effectively shielded from the high-hazard area.
  • Exit routes must remain unobstructed by materials, equipment, locked doors, or dead-end corridors.
  • Exit routes must have adequate lighting for employees with normal vision.

Disaster Planning and Preparedness

In addition to OSHA requirements for the design, construction, and maintenance of exits routes, all employers must comply with standards for employee alarm systems, first aid and medical services, and portable fire extinguishers. Regardless of your industry, you need a plan that you hopefully will never need to use.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers disaster planning and preparedness resources for businesses, as well as the public, on its Ready.gov site.

FEMA even offers a step-by-step guide to workplace disaster planning. FEMA recommends performing a vulnerability analysis to assess potential emergencies and their impacts. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) also has curated a collection of emergency preparedness resources for businesses.

You need to begin your emergency planning and training activities before a disaster happens, and you always must maintain exits and exit access.