Safety and OSHA News

2 dead, 17 injured in building collapse and fire

A fatal building collapse and fire in Omaha, NE, poses a safety question: What would your workers do during an emergency if the lights went out, sending them into pitch darkness? Would they be able to escape?

Before we consider that question, here’s a recap of what happened at the International Nutrition building collapse in Omaha on Jan. 20.

Some employees say the first thing they noticed was the building rumbling. Next, debris started falling on them as the second and third floors collapsed into the first level. After that, a fire started, described by some employees as a huge fireball.

Then, to top it all off, just as employees were trying to get out of the building, all the lights went out, sending many of the 38 workers inside into complete darkness.

Employee Nate Lewis told he was working on the main floor of the plant that produced animal supplements and feed products, when he heard the noise and was suddenly plunged into “pitch blackness.”

Two workers were killed, 17 were injured, with 10 of the injuries serious enough to be treated at the hospital. Four workers were admitted in critical condition.

Some employees say there was an explosion, although that’s not confirmed. OSHA is investigating to determine the cause of the building collapse and fire.

‘All the lights were out’

Kendrick Houston, a forklift operator at the plant, told, “It was disarray. All the lights were out. It was pitch black.”

How do you find your way out in total darkness? Nate Lewis said he used his cell phone as a flashlight and made his way to an opening in the building — a good idea given the situation. Flashlight apps either turn on the phone’s camera flash or turn the screen completely white to provide a light source.

There’s no word on whether the building was equipped with emergency lighting. If it was, it failed, given workers’ reports on the situation. The sprinkler system did work, but that created another potential problem. Some escaping workers were doused with water, and then had to bear cold temperatures outside. Hypothermia was a danger.

OSHA requires businesses to have adequately illuminated exit signs and for the route to those exits to be adequately lit.

Emergency lighting isn’t required by OSHA, but it’s part of the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) voluntary standards. State and local codes may require emergency lighting.

Here’s something else to consider: Conduct your next fire drill with the regular lights out and only emergency lighting on. Before you do that, however, pose the situation to employees: How would you evacuate if most or all of the lights went out? This will help them prepare for the lights-out drill.

What variations do you make to challenge employees during emergency drills? Let us know in the comments below.

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  1. sheree norton-ward says:

    Emergency Drills are the key to survival! Mandatory fire and evacuations drills are what saved 2,937 people who worked at Morgan Stanley in Tower II on 911. The HERO Rick Rescorla demanded evacuation drills. when the 1st plan hit Tower I; Tower II started their evacuations – they knew what stairwells to take, who was handicapped and needed assistance; how to get out and where to go; there was no panic, there was determination. Only 13 people died in Tower II; one being Rescorla who went back in to ensure everyone got out alive. Make a plan, practice the plan, get out alive!

    • I am also a caregiver for homes for the mentally & physically challenged. We do quarterly fire drills, at all hours – day and night, sleeping and awake. I will tell you for a fact, even challenged, when people are trained, they instinctively react to their training. My people know exactly what to do, where to go, when they hear the alarm – and that is because they are trained, and they practice . Practice makes action 2nd nature, which is why the military and sports teams practice; practice makes perfect. But, you are also correct in being aware of your surrounding – you should always know more than one way out of any situation – it should be your 1st thought where ever you go – “how can I get out?”

  2. Emergency drills are important, however it is also important for supervisors or worker on worker to discuss regularly – if there were an emergency right now like a 7.0 earthquake what would “we” do? I investigated an explosion in the 1980’s where there was a massive petrochem explosion. I asked some of the people working in the building if the drills helped. Every one told me, “NO when I heard the rumble, I ran like hell.” Individual responsibility goes a long way-something than few want to take. Always be aware of your surroundings-not only at work but ALWAYS.

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