Help Wanted: Exit routes in the workplace

Unless it’s a mental or correctional facility, exit

Unless it’s a mental or correctional facility, exit routes in a workplace must never be locked or blocked, says OSHA. (March 6, 2009) (Credit: AP)

DEAR CARRIE: I work for a major local retailer after closing hours. At that time, the managers lock all doors, two of which are metal gates. Supposedly a door on the far side of the building can be kicked out in an emergency. Otherwise, we are locked in until a manager comes to open the sole door we are permitted to use as an exit. If we need to leave, we have to page the manager to come unlock this door, and wait for him or her to arrive. In the event of a fire or other potential catastrophe, absent kicking out a door that we aren’t 100 percent certain can be opened, we would have to wait for a manager to let us out. Is it legal to lock in employees and expose them to the dangers of being trapped if a fire breaks out? Shouldn’t a manager with a key be stationed by the sole exit door?

-- Big-Boxed In

DEAR BIG-BOXED: You are right to raise alarms about your employer's practice because it puts employees at incredible risks. It certainly concerned the head of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Long Island.


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"Simply put, exit routes must not be blocked or locked," said Tony Ciuffo, who heads the Westbury office.

The only exceptions, he said, are exit doors that may be locked in a mental or correctional facility. Even then, supervisory personnel must be continuously on duty, and the employer must have an evacuation plan, he said.

"This exemption does not apply to the vast majority of workplaces," he said.

He noted that locked exit doors caused one of the deadliest industrial disasters in New York City's history -- the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in which 146 workers died.

"Because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits -- a common practice at the time to prevent pilferage and unauthorized breaks -- many of the workers who could not escape the burning building jumped from the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors to the streets below," he said.

A similar problem led to the death of 119 workers at a Chinese poultry-processing plant earlier this month, he said.

Contact OSHA at 516-334-3344.

 

DEAR CARRIE: My son was laid off because his driving record cost his employer high insurance rates. Since he is collecting unemployment benefits, his former boss has refused to pay him the more than $5,000 in commissions he is owed. Is this allowed? What actions should my son take?

-- Driven to Complain

DEAR DRIVEN: No, it's not legal. And your son should contact the state Labor Department about his employer's misguided action. He can reach the department at 516-794-8195.

Getting paid an earned commission and collecting unemployment benefits have nothing to do with each other. Commissions are considered wages and have to be paid once they are earned. State labor law requires employers to pay employees' commissions by no later than the last day of the month following the month in which the commission was earned. So if a commission is earned in June, it must be paid by July 31.

And none of that depends on whether an employee is receiving unemployment benefits. When employees lose a job through no fault of their own, they may be eligible for unemployment benefits, providing they meet other criteria.

For more on OSHA exit route regulations, go to http://1.usa.gov/17TvPjY; for a claim form for unpaid commissions go to http://bit.ly/12QPRun