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UE News, April-May 1993

MOST OF US take fire safety for granted — until we experience a fire firsthand or until people close to us do. Then we realize that proper fire safety protection and knowing what to do in case of a fire are matters of life and death.

Folks who live in New York City, like I do, got shaken out of our complacency recently by the World Trade Center bombing and fire in February. The explosion from the bomb instantly killed six people, but for the tens of thousands of other persons who work in the building the ordeal was just beginning.

All building lights and communications were out, and smoke rose and filled the stairwells. Workers reported walking down 50 and 75 floors, coughing all the way, not knowing whether they would encounter raging fires below or whether downstairs doors would be shut, which happened in the North Carolina poultry plant fire two years ago (UE NEWS, Oct. 24, 1991). More than 1,000 people had to be treated for smoke inhalation and other injuries, but luckily none died.

For the survivors, it was an experience they are determined never to suffer again. Speaking out at a meeting on workplace fire safety in late March, shop stewards from unions represented at the Trade Center said their supervisors and building management were caught completely unprepared for a major explosion and fire. The locals are organizing their own fire safety committees — "We’re not going to trust our lives to these people ever again," one shop steward swore.

The main speaker at the meeting was a firefighter, Duncan McRae of the New York State Chapter of the IAFF (International Association of Fire Fighters). He passed on lots of information about workplace fire safety, which applies equally well to shops big and small, short and tall. The meeting was sponsored by NYCOSH, the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. Here are some of the highlights:

Fire safety continues to be a major problem in the U.S. In 1988, more than 5,000 Americans died as a result of fires. Of them, 360 died from fires at their place of work, according to the National Safety Council. More than $3 billion was lost due to fires that year, much of it from wages lost by laid-off workers. In many cases, small and medium-sized plants go out of business for good, and workers lose their jobs permanently.

The federal OSHA law has a number of provisions on fire safety in the workplace, covering almost all private-sector workers. Even if you are in one of the 23 states with a state OSHA plan, these regulations apply to you as well. Also, if you are a state or local worker, such as a firefighter, you are covered in these states. (But if you are a firefighter in a state without a state plan, you are not covered by OSHA standards. This is another good reason why we have to pass the Comprehensive OSHA Reform Act [S.575, HR 1280]. This would put all government workers, federal, state and local — including police and firefighters — under OSHA coverage.

OSHA standards cover four basic aspects of fire safety. They require employers to provide proper fire exits, fire-fighting equipment, emergency plans (including fire prevention planning) and worker safety training.


Each workplace building must have at least two separate means of escape. They should be located far from each other, so that a fire in one area won’t block both or all exits.

To check on this, and to make sure that all large areas of the building have two escape routes, the local health and safety committee should from time to time make a plant walk-through to check on fire safety. Make sure that there are no small storage or work buildings, separate from the main plant, which have only one entrance or exit. Make sure that there isn’t some restricted-access area with only one exit. (Of course, confined spaces in your plant, such as large tanks, often have only one exit — in part that’s what makes them so dangerous. They are covered by the special OSHA Confined Space standard, described in this column recently.)

Exit doors must never be locked or blocked whenever people are working in the building. This is what happened in 1911 when 128 people perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City, and more recently when 25 people died in Hamlet, N.C. during the poultry processing plant fire in 1991.

In plants and businesses in many cities, management sometimes locks or blocks fire exits in the name of "security" — that is, they claim to be protecting the plant from people sneaking into plant from the outside. But in time of emergency, opening these doors and getting out is a matter of life and death, as the North Carolina fire vividly showed.

Some buildings have approved alarm systems which allow delayed openings of fire doors after the alarm sounds. Better yet, some use simple bolts or locks on fire doors which can be opened from the inside without a key, but which can’t be opened from the outside. By the way, having a remote-control buzzer to open is dangerous, since in time of fire the buzzer system may be out of commission (remember all lights and speakers went out at the World Trade Center fire recently).

The bottom line is: A person at the fire door needing to get out has to be able to get out without help from anyone else.

TWO TRAGEDIES — Triangle Shirtwaist and Imperial Foods — remind us of the importance of each workplace building having a means of escape, with exit doors kept unlocked and clear whenever people are working in the building.

One hundred and twenty-eight people perished in the Triangle fire in 1911 and 25 died when fire swept through the Imperial Foods poultry processing plant in Hamlet, N.C. in 1991.

All exit routes and the walkways and aisles leading to them must be free and clear of all obstructions. Your visibility in a smokey fire may be almost zero. You could trip and fall over a box or small barrel during a fire — and other could fall on top of you. When this happens in major fires, it often results in people being crushed to death by the weight of the people on top of them.

During routine plant operations, objects in the aisles may be easily visible, and people may just walk around them with no difficulty. Sometimes someone just leaves something in the aisle "temporarily," and then goes off and forgets about it. You need to look out for these obstructions whenever the union conducts a walkthrough survey of the plant.


  • Management is responsible for providing an adequate number of functioning, properly maintained fire extinguishers. For example, if there is a danger of electrical or chemical fires, an extinguisher designed for wood and paper fires just won’t do.

  • Workers expected to use these fire extinguishers must be trained in their use on company time. They must be instructed about the dangers they face when fighting the fire, and also what procedures they must follow to alert others during emergencies.

  • Emergency backup systems should not depend on electrical power, which may be out during a fire. This means, for example, that in stairwells backup lights should be battery powered. And of course this means that the batteries have to be checked from time to time, and replaced when necessary — a battery that’s out at the time of a fire is about as useful as a home smoke detector whose battery has gone dead.


  • Employers must have a written evacuation plan for fires and other emergencies. All employees have a right to see and review this plan.

  • The plan must include procedures to account for all evacuated employees. It must describe the exit routes for the employees, including those who remain behind to clear the plant and shut off critical equipment.

  • The plan must make special provisions, if necessary, for evacuation of physically impaired employees. This may include special signs and/or designated areas in which to wait until additional assistance arrives.

  • Finally, all employees must be trained what to do in case of emergencies. That is, they must be instructed about the provisions of the emergency plan. Also, the plan must be reviewed with new hires and transferred workers.


  • All written emergency plans must include a section on fire prevention. This, too, must be available for workers to review.

  • Employees must be told about the fire hazards of their job.


Here are some potential fire hazards you should look out for when doing a walk-through plant survey:

  • Equipment which produces heat, such as burners, space heaters, stoves and fryers, should be kept away from flammable materials. They should be closed when people leave the room — many fires are started when heaters are left on overnight unattended.

  • Electrical fires can be caused by worn or bare wires passing under an old, flammable throw rug. Also, octopus electrical plugs, with many appliances connected to one electrical source can cause overheating and fires (even though the system is fused).

  • Sources of ignition such as wielding and burning must be isolated from flammable materials. The written emergency plan must discuss plant safety procedures used with these sources.

  • Finally, flammable materials and flammable wastes, such as paper and wood, must be properly stored away from sources of ignition.

(Note: I gratefully acknowledge the information for this series was provided by "Workplace Fire Safety," a publication of the New York State Professional Fire Fighters Assn., IAFF.)

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