WARNING: Don’t Forget About OSHA’s Crowd Safety Requirements During The Black Friday Frenzy

November 24, 2014 | By

Every year, Black Friday, the annual day-after Thanksgiving sales event, draws a record number of shoppers. In 2013, the National Retail Federation reported that 137 million shoppers participated in Black Friday. With the number of customers reaching record highs and prices at seasonal lows, employers should beware of the inevitable crowd management issues that Black Friday presents.

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers have a general duty to provide a safe workplace for employees.  This duty includes maintaining a work environment that is free of recognized hazards that are likely to cause serious bodily injury or death. In recent years, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has made it clear to employers and retail store owners that crowd control preparation and precaution is necessary to avoid the obvious safety risk presented by the large crowds that are drawn by the holiday’s major sales event. 

Black Friday crowd management issues garnered national attention in 2008, when a tragic story unfolded at the store opening of a major US retailer:  a temporary worker was trampled to death by a stampede of more than 2,000 Black Friday shoppers. OSHA investigated the employee’s death and levied a fine against the store for inadequate crowd management. (The company also faced the potential claims that could be asserted by the deceased employee’s estate.)  Since the incident, OSHA has routinely issued updated guidance to employers to assist in minimizing or preventing injuries on Black Friday.

On November 12, 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) sent letters to retail employers urging them to implement preventative and precautionary safety measures to avoid workplace injuries to both employees and customers, as the busiest shopping day of the year looms near.  A copy of the letter can be found here.  Along with the letter, the DOL enclosed the new guidance issued by OSHA entitled “Crowd Management Safety Tips for Retailers.” The guidance is offered to instruct employers on the importance of implementing proper crowd management plans to avoid injuries during the holiday shopping season.

Employers, who are preparing for Black Friday by ramping up promotions and advertisements, and rolling back prices, must also seriously consider the safety threats posed by the throng of holiday season shoppers and should put a crowd management plan in place that includes the following:

1.            Planning

Prior to the event, employers should forecast the number of shoppers and the size of the crowd anticipated at the Black Friday event. Where large crowds are expected, employers should adequately staff the store through the hiring of temporary or seasonal employees. Additionally, employers should beef up security measures by having police or security personnel onsite throughout the event to assist in crowd management. As part of the planning process, employers need to provide training to their employees on crowd management and the necessary steps to take in the event of an emergency—this training should be interactive; allowing the event staff to participate in simulations is an excellent way to train employees on how to realistically respond to the safety threat of large crowds.

2.            Pre-Event Setup

In the days leading up to Black Friday, employers should focus on running an orderly sales event. OSHA encourages employers to utilize barricades or rope lines to manage the large crowd of shoppers. Employers should critically exam the store’s layout to determine where barricades are needed and should be mindful that the lines and/or barricades do not block the store’s entrances. The lines and barricades system should be explained to customers, preferably in writing—some employers provide an event or site map to Black Friday shoppers, indicating the location of the barricades, customer lines and sales areas. Employers should also emphasize the importance of effective communication amongst employees and security staff by providing radios, phones or other means for event staff to communicate with one another.

3.            Sales Event Logistics

In the wake of the 2008 trampling death mentioned above, OSHA has provided specific instructions to employers on logistical planning for the opening of a store. Specifically, OSHA has suggested that employers provide a separate and secured entrance for employees as well as for customers with disabilities. Employers should staff all entrances with uniformed guards or police, not just sales or store employees, because trained security personnel are better equipped to deal with and minimize customer stampedes. OSHA has also cautioned employers about fire safety and building code issues, instructing employers to keep an accurate accounting of the number of people inside the store so that once the store reaches maximum occupancy, crowds can be managed to prevent additional customers from entering until the occupancy level drops.

4.            Emergencies

Employers should be prepared for emergency situations and develop an emergency response plan that addresses overcrowding, evacuation, violent acts and fire hazards. It is important for employers to remain in constant communication with the local police and fire departments. Employers should designate an employee, preferably from management, to contact emergency personnel and make key decisions in the event of an emergency. Employers should keep first-aid kits and Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) onsite to respond to in-store emergencies; and there should also be designated emergency response personnel on hand who are trained in providing CPR and using AEDs. Additionally, all exits should be clearly marked and employees should be instructed to keep those exits clear of debris, items and customers.

As employers and retail owners prepare for the biggest shopping day of the year, they should remember that slashing prices cannot come at the expense of employee and customer safety. Following the guidelines issued by OSHA regarding crowd management plans and proper emergency response procedures will help employers, employees and customers have a safe and happy holiday shopping season.

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