Offices in Corridors a Safety Issue?

Posted March 28, 2003 at 5:23pm

The growing use of hallways as extended office space by the House leadership could violate federal regulations mandating that exit routes be unobstructed.

“It sounds like a circumstance that needs to be looked at,” Office of Compliance Executive Director Bill Thompson said.

In recent years, both Democratic and Republican leadership offices have increasingly looked to the hallways adjacent to their suites for additional space in the cramped Capitol. The space crunch has been exacerbated in recent months because of construction of the Capitol Visitor Center, which has made thousands of square feet temporarily, and in some cases permanently, unavailable.

The two most recent examples are the Whip offices. Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) both have a handful of desks, couches and, in Hoyer’s case, a copy machine, in their respective hallways. The areas each support four to five staffers and form their reception areas.

Hoyer’s office declined to comment. Blunt’s office didn’t return calls seeking comment.

They are only the latest examples, however. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) have all had staff in hallways connected to their offices for years.

Doling out office space in the Capitol is the Speaker’s prerogative. His office declined to comment.

Both Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations and the Life Safety Code mandate that no furnishings or other objects can obstruct exits.

OSHA guidelines for fire and emergency egress state: “Exit routes must be free and unobstructed. No materials or equipment may be placed, either permanently or temporarily, within the exit route.”

The OSHA regulations are based largely on the Life Safety Code — which is so ubiquitous that many states adopt it as their own fire and safety regulations. For almost a century, it has been the consensus standard on means of egress.

“No furnishings, decorations, or other objects shall obstruct exits, access thereto, egress therefrom, or visibility thereof,” the 2000 edition of the Life Safety Code reads. “When the authority having jurisdiction finds the required path of travel to be obstructed by furniture or other movable objects, the authority shall be permitted to require that such objects be secured out of the way.”

In most states, that authority is the fire marshal. But the Capitol isn’t subject to a fire marshal. (The Architect of the Capitol has such a position, but its authority is largely contained within AOC.) The only outside authority enforcing emergency exit regulations is the Office of Compliance.

The 1995 Congressional Accountability Act made 11 federal workplace laws — including OSHA — applicable to the legislative branch and created the Office of Compliance to ensure their implementation.

“The statute authorizes us to do biannual wall-to-wall inspections, and we do them,” Thompson said. “But for more anecdotal situations, whenever there is a problem it is incumbent upon staff, managers and Members, should they see a circumstance that compromises health or safety, [to] contact us.”

The identity of the complainant can be kept confidential, Thompson said.