Navigation Bar

Home -> Heath & Safety Index -> Article



Planning for Emergencies

UE News, February, 2002 David Kotelchuck

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.


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: 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][5]). 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][2]) 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][5]) 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][2])


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][3]) 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.


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 Standard 1910.1200).

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.

MORE: Writing Emergency Plans and Bringing Then to Life (H&S 3/02)

page top

Home -> Heath & Safety Index -> Article

Home • About UE • Organize! • Independent Unions • Search • Site Guide • What's New • Contact UE
UE News • Political Action • Info for Workers • Resources • Education • Health & Safety • International • Links