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June 21, 2013
Can your employees get out in an emergency?

In the wake of a deadly fire in China, OSHA has asked inspectors to make sure employees have a way out of the building in the event of fire, explosion, or other crisis. On June 4, a fire at a poultry processing plant took the lives of at least 119 Chinese workers.

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Similar tragedies have occurred in the United States. In September 1991, 25 people died as a result of a fire at a poultry plant in Hamlet, North Carolina. The cause of the fire was the ignition of hydraulic oil from a ruptured line near a natural-gas-fired cooker. But OSHA concluded that exit and fire safety violations contributed significantly to the number of deaths and injuries.

Exit routes are mandatory

An OSHA memo directs field inspectors to be mindful of whether employers have provided and maintained adequate means of egress. This includes exit routes that are free and unobstructed, and exit doors that are unlocked.

OSHA describes an exit route as a “continuous and unobstructed path of exit travel from any point within a workplace to a place of safety.”

Normally, a workplace must have at least two exit routes for prompt evacuation of employees and others in the building at the time of an emergency. More than two may be required depending on the number of employees, the size of the building, and the arrangement of the site. In some cases, one is enough.

Other requirements for exit routes:

  • Exit routes must be permanent parts of the workplace.
  • Exit route doors must be unlocked from the inside and free of alarms and other devices that could restrict use of the exit route if the device or alarm fails.
  • Exit route ceilings must be a least 7 feet, 6 inches high.
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