OSHA: Exit routes are mandatory

Is there a clear way out of your building in case of an emergency? Do you know where all the exits are in case your first choice is blocked or too crowded?

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued a national memorandum on exit routes, directing inspectors to carefully examine whether employers have provided and maintained an adequate means of exit from work areas, the agency announced on June 17, 2013.

This comes after the massive fire and explosion at a Chinese poultry-processing plant in early June, in which an estimated 119 employees died. Survivors described workers struggling to reach doors that turned out to be locked or blocked.

The memo directs inspectors to determine whether an adequate number of exit routes are provided and whether those routes are unobstructed, as well as to ensure that exit doors are not locked.

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

If you have 10 or fewer employees, you may communicate your plan orally. If you have more than 10 employees plans must be written, kept in the workplace, and available for employee review. Although employers are required to have an emergency action plan only when an applicable OSHA standard requires it, OSHA strongly recommends that all employers have an EAP. Employers can see what standards require plans and detailed requirements here.


Know the number of exits needed

Usually, a workplace must have at least two exit routes to permit employees and visitors to promptly evacuate the building during an emergency, according to OSHA. 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, if all employees and other occupants can exit safely during an emergency, one exit route is acceptable. Exit routes must be located as far from each other as possible, in case one is blocked by fire or smoke.


Free and unobstructed

Ensure that exit routes are not obstructed by:

• Materials, equipment, locked doors or dead-end corridors.

• Decorations or signs that obscure the visibility of exit-route doors.

• Objects that could impede access to the exit route during construction, repair or alterations to a workplace.

• Explosive or highly flammable furnishings.

It cannot be stressed enough that exit doors must be unlocked from the inside. They must also be free of devices or alarms that could restrict their use if the device or alarm fails.


Properly labeled and maintained

Exit routes and doors must be properly labeled and maintained. This includes:

• Providing adequate lighting.

• Posting signs along the exit route indicating the direction of travel to the nearest exit and exit discharge if that direction is not immediately apparent.

• Marking doors or passages along an exit route with signs, such as “Not an exit” or “Break Room,” to prevent confusion as to their purpose.

• Using “Exit” signs that have large legible letters.

Additionally, OSHA strongly recommends that all employers keep a written emergency action plan in the workplace and make it available for employees to review.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM. Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.

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