Over the past year, the state has cited 30 employers, a third of them public agencies and schools, including one fire station, for violating safety rules against blocked or locked fire exits.
"Fire exits are not a Top 10 violation, but they happen often enough to cause concern," said Craig Lowry, enforcement chief for the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health office. "You can never tell when that exit will be crucial for escape from a fire."
That was the case earlier this month when 25 workers died in a fire at a North Carolina chicken-processing plant where exits were apparently locked or blocked. The plant had not seen a safety inspector in 11 years.
MOSH has inspected fire exits at nearly all the state's food-processing plants within the past three years, Mr. Lowry said, adding:
"It's not a problem that is limited to poultry processing. It cuts across every employment sector in the state."
In one case, the agency has been fighting for four years to make a West Baltimore wholesale linens distributor provide a fire exit on its first floor, which is below ground.
Some first-floor doors were secured with as many as five locks and bolts, and the stairway to the second floor exits was partially blocked, the MOSH inspector reported.
The state initially proposed no fine for the violation by Standard Textile Co. Inc. in the 3100 block of West Frederick Road after an inspection in September 1987 that was prompted by a worker complaint about backed up toilets.
But Standard Textile failed to correct the unsafe fire exit conditions, despite several informal conferences and reinspections, MOSH charged.
Because there was no satisfactory correction, the fines rose to $3,000 in February 1988 and then to $9,100 by June 1988.
Since then, the state agency and the firm have been negotiating a settlement while postponing a formal hearing on the charges, now set for Oct. 14.
An official of Standard Textile, who declined to identify himself, said yesterday the case had been resolved, but he would not discuss the settlement. Mr. Lowry denied the case had been settled.
In challenging the citation, Standard Textile argued that MOSH wrongly interpreted the rules. The building is a warehouse and, as such, is not required to have a ground-floor fire exit, the company said.
The state contends that Standard Textile is an industrial concern, because workers sort, iron and repackage towels and linens for distribution.
Employees work in the 40,000-square-foot lower level with combustible materials, which requires a fire exit, MOSH maintains.
Mr. Lowry said the case illustrates the need for employers to address potential fire dangers to employees before they begin operations. Modifying the workplace afterward can be difficult, although necessary to protect lives, he said.
In another case involving a book bindery several years ago, the employer finally resolved the problem of a blocked fire exit by installing a system that automatically lifted a part of the assembly line in front of the door when the fire alarm sounded.
Another involved the bomb-shelter-like emergency communications center of Allegany County, which first installed a ceiling hatch and then a second exit to address the problem.
Employer violations may also involve a temporary obstruction, Mr.Lowry pointed out, which is easily remedied: a box that has been moved in front of a door, furniture stacked there to prepare for cleaning.
The Hyattstown volunteer fire department got a citation in February for a balky fire door, along with 27 other safety violations at its Montgomery County station.
The faulty latch on the door between the firefighter lounge and the engine room was fixed, and an automatic door closer installed, said corporation President Avon Chisholm. The volunteer company did not contest the citations and, as a public agency, paid no fine.
"Most of the stuff [MOSH citations] was nitpicking, but we took care of it," said Mr. Chisholm, who blamed the complaints on disgruntled career firefighters assigned to the rural station. "We weren't embarrassed by it."