Locked and Blocked

by Janet L. Keyes, CIH

Have you ever been in a Dollar Tree or Family Dollar store? Good for bargains, but they haven’t been good places to be if a fire breaks out. Good luck on getting to a fire extinguisher. Hope you can get to the exit door – and maybe it will be unlocked so you can get outside.

In 1911, 146 garment workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in Manhattan, many jumping out of windows to their deaths on the sidewalk below. The workers couldn’t escape. Exits were blocked. Exit doors were locked. They had fire extinguishers of sorts – buckets of water – but there were too few. In the aftermath, rules were written to keep exits clear and to have fire extinguishers at hand. But some companies have ignored the lessons of Triangle Shirtwaist.

Dollar Tree and Family Dollar ignored the lessons. We don’t think their deliberate ignorance has killed anyone yet. But it has cost the company over $13 million since 2017. Last August, they agreed to a settlement agreement with OSHA, paying $1.35 million immediately and agreeing to pay much more if problems such as blocked exits or extinguishers recur. The company also agreed to develop an enhanced safety program, adding safety staff, changing how they manage inventory and putting in engineering controls such as extended shelving. OSHA came down hard on these discount stores, not because anyone was injured or killed, but because history has shown, time and again, that people will be killed if they cannot escape. 

What did the stores do wrong? 

Materials were stored haphazardly, in unstable stacks higher than eight feet tall. 

Products were stored in front of fire extinguishers and electrical panels. If you can’t get to the extinguisher within seconds, the fire will spread. If you can’t shut off electrical power quickly, someone could be electrocuted.

Back room exit routes and exit doors were blocked. Merchandise would be delivered and left where it was dropped, because the stores lacked the personnel or space to get the material out of the way. 

Exits were locked, unable to be opened from the inside “without keys, tools or special knowledge.” The path to and away from the exits was less than 28-inches wide (that goes along with the blocked exit routes).

You wouldn’t violate any of these requirements, would you? 

Parts delivery people prioritize getting deliveries done. They aren’t going to check if they are blocking an exit or fire extinguisher. You need to have a place for those parts or need to make sure they are put away promptly.

Body shops often need to store old car parts until repair is complete. You need to find space to store those securely. And that space cannot be in front of your electrical panels, fire extinguishers or exits. We usually haven’t seen this as a problem if you use parts carts and have a designated place to put them. But especially in small shops, we have seen parts carts left higgledy-piggledy, blocking exit routes and emergency equipment access.

Many facilities carefully stripe the floor below electrical panels and fire extinguishers. They may even put down yellow stripes to delineate exit paths. OSHA’s settlement agreement with Dollar Tree requires their stores to do that. But paint can wear off. And even if it doesn’t wear off, it can be ignored. It seems some folks think that the yellow stripes mean “store here!” We think marking the areas that need to be kept clear is wise, but only if employees know the purpose of the markings and the markings aren’t ignored.

The Dollar Tree settlement doesn’t cover Minnesota stores. But Minnesota hasn’t left Dollar Tree off the hook. The most recent posted citation, the result of a complaint last April, incurred a penalty of $28,000. The standards the store violated aren’t complicated. The main one, considered a willful violation (they knew it was wrong and did it anyway) was this: 

“Exit routes must be free and unobstructed. No materials or equipment may be placed, either permanently or temporarily, within the exit route. The exit access must not go through a room that can be locked, such as a bathroom, to reach an exit or exit discharge, nor may it lead into a dead-end corridor. Stairs or a ramp must be provided where the exit route is not substantially level.”

Dollar Tree penalties were so high because they kept having the same violations, albeit in different stores. OSHA quite reasonably thinks that management should correct problems brought to their attention. Once one Dollar Tree store was cited for blocked exits, Dollar Tree should have corrected the problem in all Dollar Tree stores. Because they didn’t, the citations became willful or repeat citations. That increased penalties ten-fold. Keep that in mind if you have multiple shops – a problem cited at one may only cost you $1000. But if the same problem is found at your other shops, it may cost you $10,000.

Don’t be like Dollar Tree – or like the Triangle Shirtwaist Company over a hundred years ago. Make sure employees can get out safely and quickly when the unexpected happens. 

For more information, contact Carol Keyes at carkey@chess-safety.com.

Want more? Check out the January 2024 issue of AASP-MN News!