Q. I work as a truck driver at a warehouse, and I have serious concerns about the safety of employees as well as customers. The building was recently remodeled, and where it once had two doors it now has only one. There are no windows. Because we've had a lot of robberies, they lock us in there for a while every night while they count the cash and receipts for the day. What would happen in case of an emergency, like if a fire broke out? I notified my supervisor and he said it is okay as it is, but I can't help but feel that even rats are better off, as everyone knows that even a poor rat has more than one hole.
A. Sounds creepy to me, too. While some experts said that if the building has a good sprinkler system you're fairly safe, there are no guarantees.
In 1991, 25 people locked inside a poultry plant in North Carolina died when a leak in a hydraulic line ignited a blaze under a deep-fat fryer. Plant owner Emmett Roe was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 20 years in prison for ordering the plant's doors locked to keep flies out and to prevent workers from walking out with chicken nuggets.
Locked doors were also partially to blame for one of the most notorious workplace fires in history, when the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. clothing factory in New York burst into flames on March 25, 1911, resulting in 146 deaths, mostly of women and young girls. The doors had been locked to keep union activists out.
Frances Perkins, a young social worker who was eating lunch nearby with friends when the blaze broke out, was so upset by the horrifying sight of women throwing themselves off the high-rise building to escape the blaze that it led her to crusade for workplace safety. Perkins served as secretary of labor during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt and created the U.S. Bureau of Labor Standards in 1934.
A patchwork quilt of laws governs workplace safety, with local fire departments and state and federal authorities having separate jurisdictions. You should start by contacting the local fire department or fire marshal and then turn to the state, if yours has its own workplace regulation agencies, and then to federal labor regulators. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulates whether entrances and exits are adequate.
Locked doors that prevent escape violate fire codes in many municipalities, said Bill Hershman, a spokesman for the International Association of Fire Chiefs. "Nobody should have to be subjected to something like that," Hershman said.
But don't wait for regulators to step forward to fix a problem. Just because government authorities exist doesn't mean they are paying attention. After the North Carolina inferno, investigators learned that the plant had never been inspected in its 11 years of operation and had neither fire alarms nor a sprinkler system. North Carolina has since improved its workplace safety enforcement program.
Q. I'm a lawyer who began working in a new office building in March. I have nasal allergies and have been receiving shots for years, with good effect. Until I came to this building, I've never had a negative reaction to an air circulation system. But since I began working here, I've developed a coughing wheeze that seems to be directly correlated to the time I spend in the office. The cough gets gradually worse from the late morning through the afternoon. It goes away over the weekend when I'm not at work. It is becoming increasingly disabling.
I've already begun the official complaint routine but have been told the air in the system is cleaner than the air outside. It's clear this will be an uphill fight at best. Is this problem common? Any suggestions?
A. "This is very common," said Edward J. Bernacki, an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and an expert on occupational medicine. About 15 percent of the population has allergies, he said, with some people considered "atopic," in that they have multiple, severe allergies.
Bernacki said most modern buildings are well designed with good ventilation systems, sometimes resulting in better air quality inside than outside, particularly in smoggy urban areas. But over the years, molds can grow in air ducts, manila folders can become dust magnets and new carpets can emit fumes. Poor space planning can cause problems as well, when workers jam bookcases up against walls, blocking exhaust systems, for example, or when photocopiers are placed in rooms that are too small, producing unhealthy ozone levels.
One suggestion is to ask for an environmental consultant to examine the building and test it for indoor air pollution or poor ventilation. It can sometimes take some persistence, because many building landlords are reluctant to foot the bill for the expense, often $3,000 or more. For more information, check out the Web site of the American College of Environmental and Occupational Medicine in Arlington Heights, Ill., at www.acoem.org. Its Labor Day checklist focused on asthma in the workplace. Or call the Environmental Protection Agency's Indoor Air Quality Information Clearinghouse at 1-800-438-4318.