When the planes hit the World Trade Center just before 9 a.m.
on September 11, most of the 25,000 people who worked there were already in
the building, either at their desks or on the way to their offices. Before the
buildings collapsed about half an hour later, most got out safely, thanks in
large part to the courageous action of firefighters, police officers and
emergency response personnel. As we all know, three thousand people died, many
of them these same rescue workers.
Less well known is the important role played by the emergency
response plans developed after the buildings were first attacked in 1993. The
regular evacuation drills practiced by the building tenants since then helped
the 20,000 or so who survived to know what to do in an emergency and to
navigate their ways down to safety.
For most of us, the worst disaster we may face in our
workplace is a plant fire or explosion. We hope, of course, that we won’t
face this, but our firefighter friends and colleagues know that as sure as
clockwork, plant fires and home fires take place with regularity.
So when it comes to preparing for fire emergencies at work,
why do our collective eyes glaze over? Maybe because we can’t afford to
worry about every potential crisis facing us or we’d go crazy. But fires are
sure to strike somewhere. We need to think about and plan for them. And the
evacuation plans that help us for fires can help us for other crises, such as
chemical spills and violence in the workplace.
HOW DO WE
GET OUT OF HERE?
One of the most important elements of any evacuation plan is
that from every workstation there must be at least two exits by separate
ways of travel. This is required by OSHA for all workplaces, under OSHA
Standard 1910.37 Means of Egress, General, Section (f)(1) (see: www.osha-slc.gov/OshStd_data/1910_0037.html).
This standard also applies to all State OSHA plans, since they must always be
at least as effective as the federal OSHA law.
Exit access should not require employees to travel near or by
high-hazard areas, such as fuel tanks or storage areas for other flammable
materials, unless "the path of travel is effectively shielded from the
high hazard location by suitable partitions or other physical barriers." (1910.37,
Section [f]). Exit routes must be continuously maintained "free
of all obstructions and impediments to full instant use in the case of fire or
other emergency." (1910.37, Section [k]) How
many times in a plant or office do we see a file cabinet, a pile of books or a
piece of machinery blocking an exit door? This is illegal. In a smoky fire
situation, with low visibility, persons could trip and fall on these as they
try to get out.
Along any exit route there shall be no dead ends in excess of
20 feet of travel. (1910.37, Section [g]) Any door,
passage or stairway which is not an exit or a way of access to an exit, and
could be mistaken for one, must have a sign posted saying "Not an
Exit" or saying where it leads to, such as "Storeroom" or
"To Basement." (1910.37, Section [q])
Finally, any security device used to protect from illegal
entry into the office or plant, or improper exit from the plant or office
(say, God forbid, to take a breath of fresh air or, just the opposite, to
smoke a cigarette), shall not "impede or prevent emergency use of such
exit." (1910.37, Section [k]) Federal OSHA rules
and local fire department regulations make quite clear that the practice of
locking exit doors, with no key available at the door, is illegal. Yet this
regulation is frequently violated in many places of work, in the name of plant
security. This has caused major tragedies in the past, where people are
suffocated and trampled at a blocked exit door. Many will still remember the
25 deaths in a fire at a Hamlet, North Carolina chicken processing plant in
1991, caused by locked exit doors.
A walkthrough of the plant or office can easily pick up
violations of these OSHA requirements. Conduct such a walkthrough with your
local’s health and safety committee (and later, with a joint committee, if
you have one). And don’t forget to keep a written record of what you find,
for later reference. Also, these and other fire safety requirements (Are the
fire extinguishers the right ones and are they regularly checked? etc.) can be
checked for by local fire department inspectors, who know that violations of
these standards may put them and their colleagues’ lives in danger.
IS THERE A PLAN?
Fire safety professionals recommend that each plant or office
with 10 or more employees have a written fire safety plan. However,
OSHA does not require a written plan, except under special standards like the
Confined Space and Hazardous Waste standards. But remember, the provisions
noted above are required for all plants and offices, it’s just that OSHA
does not require that these be written down. OSHA does require that workers be
taught emergency procedures related to their plant or office as part of any
Right-To-Know training under the Hazard Communication Standard (OSHA
One further important component of any fire or other emergency
evacuation plan: Select a location outside the plant or building where
everyone should gather after escaping. Or if the plant or building is a large
one, select a few designated gathering places to go after escaping, and make
sure that each person knows where they are supposed to report. This allows you
and your employers to know who has escaped and who is perhaps still inside. It
also helps prevent firefighters going into a building to "rescue"
someone who has in fact escaped. Many a firefighter has died looking for
someone inside a burning building, who, in fact, has already reached safety.
It is recommended that you should practice escape plans at
least twice per year for all plant and office employees. It may seem like a
bother to do this, but as in the case of the recent World Trade Center
disaster, these drills can and do save lives. When an emergency happens, you
need to know what to do and do it quickly. It’s too late then to learn about
the safety plan.
Writing Emergency Plans and Bringing Then to Life