During these challenging times, amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic, businesses have grappled with ways to keep their employees and customers safe. In addition to ramped up cleaning regimes, many have adopted social distancing practices to slow down COVID-19. One social distancing measure adopted in numerous workplaces is the use of one-way aisles. One-way aisles reduce the number of times building occupants pass each other and help maintain social distancing protocols. However, careful thought and consideration should go into these decisions, especially when it comes to means of egress. As noted in FEMA’s U.S. Fire Administration Safety Notice on ingress and egress concerns during COVID, “the potential for a fire and the need for emergency exits has not changed, regardless of the number of people in a building.”
Simply put, means of egress is an exiting system. It’s how building occupants get out of a building in a safe and timely manner during a fire or other emergency. If one-way aisles routinely lead a person away from the closest exit, how will that affect their behavior in an evacuation? What about one-way stairs? Will these types of pandemic mitigating efforts have an adverse effect on fire and life safety?
Making matters worse, some businesses have blocked or locked exits in an attempt to control occupant flow. Although these new controls are well intentioned, such actions can have disastrous results. State Fire Marshalls in some locations, like the state of Maryland and Tennessee, are very concerned, and are receiving numerous questions and complaints from concerned customers about businesses modifying their entrances, exits and aisles to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Fire and life safety code requirements have not changed, and building occupants need access to exits at all times the building is occupied. If a door cannot be locked from the outside while remaining operable from the inside, the door cannot be locked. In these situations, businesses should consider additional signage or staff-manned doors.
Compounding the problem, hand-sanitizing stations have cropped up in corridors and other means of egress components. These should be placed in such a way as to not encroach upon the required minimum corridor width. A clear path of travel should never be obstructed.
The primary purpose of fire and life safety codes is the protection of life. Fundamental to this purpose is the path of egress travel. In the rapidly changing environment created by COVID-19, we must be vigilant to not compromise means of egress systems. To help address this preventable issue and protect buildings and inhabitants during COVID-19, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has provided video guidance to help “Ensure Safety as Buildings Reopen to a New Normal.” As industries respond to the pandemic, they should include the fire protection/life safety community in all discussions to ensure a robust plan that doesn’t open the door to other types of preventable tragedies.