Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine safety in the retail trade.
The Friday after Thanksgiving marks a tipping point for the retail sector: Black Friday, when most retailers’ accounts shift to profitability. The holiday shopping season also brings an influx of new seasonal retail workers, and young seasonal workers may be starting their first formal employment.
Large crowds may be expected for holiday shopping events like Black Friday. If you’re a retailer, you need to take steps to ensure your workers are safe. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) offers employers a fact sheet with crowd management safety guidelines for the retail trade and a 40-page guide for workplace violence prevention in late-night retail establishments.
OSHA enforces workplace safety and health compliance at retail establishments all year round. For example, OSHA has an ongoing COVID-19 national emphasis program (NEP) focused on discount department stores, groceries, and supermarkets, as well as ambulance and home healthcare services; general, psychiatric, and surgical hospitals; long-term care facilities; and other non-healthcare industries like correctional facilities, restaurants, meatpacking and poultry processing facilities, and warehouses and storage facilities.
While retail employment may not feature the obvious hazards of construction work like electrocution or falls from heights, it has its own dangers. The Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the number and rate of workplace injuries in the retail trade rose in 2018. In fact, the retail trade was the only one of 19 private industries in which the rate of nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses rose that year. Injuries that led to days away from work included 38,940 from being struck by objects or equipment and 34,190 from falls, slips, or trips.
OSHA has intently focused its enforcement resources on discount retailers, including Dollar General, Dollar Tree, and Family Dollar. The agency has been very public about its enforcement at discount retail stores. Violations cited at discount retailers often include blocked or locked emergency exits, blocked electrical panels, improperly stacked cartons, and merchandise or carts blocking store aisles. The agency recently placed Dollar General in its severe violators enforcement program (SVEP).
OSHA also has taken enforcement action at Target stores. OSHA cited eight Target locations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York between May and December 2019 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. The company initially contested the citations before the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, but in October 2020, Target agreed to pay $464,750 in penalties to resolve the eight cases before the review commission. In addition to paying reduced penalties, Target agreed to implement enhanced safety measures to abate egress and storage hazards at Target stores in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York over the next 2 years.
The most frequently cited OSHA standards in the retail trade are:
- 29 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) §1910.178, Powered industrial trucks;
- §1910.200, Hazard communication;
- §1910.37, Maintenance, safeguards, and operational features for exit routes;
- §1910.303, Electrical—General;
- §1910.157, Portable fire extinguishers; and
- §1910.22, Walking-working surfaces.
Aisles, exits, and storerooms
OSHA regularly cites retail employers for blocked exit routes. Exit routes must remain unobstructed by equipment and materials and have adequate lighting. Exit access must be at least 28 inches (in.) wide at all points, and ceilings of exit routes must be at least 7 feet, 6 in. high. Exit doors must be unlocked from the inside and free of decorations or signs that would obscure their visibility.
Earlier this year, OSHA cited a Dollar General store for endangering employee safety by blocking and locking emergency exits. Local fire officials informed agency inspectors that emergency exit doors at a Baldwin, Wisconsin, store were closed and padlocked on the inside with a bike lock. Inspectors also found boxes of store merchandise blocking exit routes.
The agency then cited a Greencastle, Pennsylvania, Dollar General store for blocked and constricted exit routes.
Under OSHA’s walking-working surfaces regulations, all “passageways, storerooms, service rooms, and walking-working surfaces are kept in a clean, orderly, and sanitary condition.” Many of the violations cited at Dollar General, Dollar Tree, and Family Dollar stores involved aisles blocked by cartons, merchandise, or carts.
Under OSHA’s electrical safety regulations, employers must maintain a working space around electrical equipment, including electrical panels. The agency has repeatedly cited discount retailers for cartons of merchandise stacked in front of electrical panels.
For example, OSHA cited Dollar Tree for cartons stacked in front of electrical panels at stores in Houston, Texas; Missoula, Montana; and Titusville, Florida.
Portable fire extinguishers
You must provide portable fire extinguishers, locating and mounting them where they are readily accessible to employees. Only approved fire extinguishers may be used. Portable fire extinguishers must be maintained in a fully charged and operable condition.
Fire extinguishers also must be regularly inspected and tested. You also must familiarize your employees with the proper use of portable fire extinguishers.
Forklifts, industrial trucks
While forklifts and other industrial trucks are more common in distribution centers, warehouses, and storage facilities, some retail establishments use them. Some of OSHA’s regional emphasis programs for powered industrial trucks include grocery stores and supermarkets.
If you have forklifts or other powered industrial trucks in your stores, your compliance program must address operator training, truck operation, and maintenance, including the battery changing or charging and fueling of forklifts and other powered industrial trucks. Industrial trucks must meet current industry design standards, and only trained, authorized personnel may operate them.
In addition to regulation of battery changing and charging, the agency’s powered industrial trucks standard includes provisions covering the control of noxious fumes or gases and fuel handling and storage for nonelectric vehicles, as well as operator training and certification, safe forklift operation, forklift maintenance, lighting for forklift operational areas, and safety guards.
Requirements for forklift and powered industrial truck operations include:
- Not passing other trucks traveling in the same direction at intersections, blind spots, or other dangerous locations;
- Slowing down and sounding the horn at cross aisles and other locations where vision is obstructed;
- Operating trucks at a speed that will permit safe stopping under all travel conditions;
- Prohibiting stunt driving and horseplay;
- Approaching elevators slowly and entering squarely after the elevator car has properly leveled;
- Entering elevators or other confined areas with the load end forward;
- Only handling loads within the rated capacity of the truck; and
- Using extreme care when tilting the load forward or backward.
There are chemical hazards in many workplaces, including retail stores. After fall protection, OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard is the agency’s second most frequently cited standard across all industries.
You must have a written hazard communication program covering all employees who may be exposed to hazardous substances. Your written program can be maintained either on paper or in electronic form, but all employees must know how to access it, and there can be no barriers to their access.
When OSHA compliance safety and health officers (CSHOs) inspect a business, they may cite an employer for the lack of a written program, as well as missing elements of a program. Hazard communication program elements include maintaining chemical labels and safety data sheets (SDSs) and worker training.
During a workplace walkaround, a CSHO will confirm that the program includes a complete inventory of all hazardous substances in the establishment, methods for informing employees of hazards encountered in routine and nonroutine tasks, and confirming that all employees can and know how to access the program.
An inspector also will review documentation of training aspects of the written program. Inspectors will look for a designated person responsible for training, how training is conducted, and procedures for training new employees.
Even employees working a few weeks during the holiday shopping season need to understand chemical hazards in the workplace, where to find labels and SDSs, and how to use the precautionary information contained in the SDSs. During an inspection, an agency CSHO also may interview employees to assess the strength of your hazard communication training program.
Young, seasonal workers
Young, seasonal retail workers in their first jobs may lack safety and job-specific knowledge and skills. Limited or nonexistent prior work experience and a lack of safety training can mean a lack of understanding of workplace hazards and how to avoid them.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) developed a series of “8 Core Competencies,” occupational safety and health skills that young workers can be taught on their first jobs and take with them to other employers and industries. The 8 Core Competencies are:
- Recognizing that while work has benefits, all workers can be injured, become sick, or even be killed on the job. Workers must know how workplace risks can affect their lives and their families.
- Recognizing that work-related injuries and illnesses are predictable and can be prevented.
- Identifying hazards at work, evaluating the risks, and learning how to predict ways that workers may become sick or injured.
- Recognizing how to prevent injury and illness, learning the best ways to address workplace hazards and how to apply these concepts to specific workplace problems.
- Identifying emergencies at work and deciding how to best address them.
- Recognizing employer and worker rights and responsibilities that play a role in safe and healthy work.
- Finding resources that help keep workers safe and healthy on the job.
- Demonstrating how workers can communicate with others, including people in authority roles, to ask questions or report problems or concerns when they feel unsafe or threatened.
NIOSH advises employers and supervisors to avoid assumptions about young workers’ knowledge. What may be evident to you may not be to a teen or young adult. Provide safety training in terms that teens can understand, such as by avoiding using industry jargon or carefully explaining industry terms the first time you use them.
Give clear instructions for each work task, and encourage young workers to ask questions during training sessions. Supervise teens closely, immediately correcting any issues or risky behaviors, and prepare them for emergencies, such as fires and violent or unexpected, dangerous situations.
Young workers may be unfamiliar with everyday working conditions. You need to ensure they are mindful of the space around them. They often must be taught to look out for people, boxes, forklifts, and moving objects in the work area that could fall on or hit them.