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 Omaha.com 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 Omaha.com, “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.