On Black Friday, 2008, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. employee Jdimytai Damour died when an estimated 2,000 customers stormed the store shortly before it was scheduled to open. Now Wal-Mart has spent a reported $2 million trying to avoid a $7,000 fine from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) over the incident.
The fight is more about principle than monetary damages, obviously. According to The New York Times, the retail chain had already agreed to a settlement with the district attorney of Nassau County, New York, where the stampede occurred, creating a $400,000 fund to compensate those injured in the incident and donating $1.5 million to county programs. The company also agreed to implement new crowd control measures in its 92 New York state stores.
So why would Wal-Mart fight a measly $7,000 fine? Precedent. In imposing this fine, OSHA is expanding the interpretation of its mandate. By defining crowd control as an employee health and safety issue for which retailers have a legal obligation, it puts a new burden on the shoulders of all Wal-Mart stores, as well as other retailers. Should more stampedes occur, and they surely will, the retailers could be fined by OSHA . Their defense in civil suits after such stampedes could also be weakened.
Addendum: Greg Rossiter of Wal-Mart said in an e-mail, "OSHA wants to hold Walmart accountable for a standard that was neither proposed nor issued at the time of the incident. The citation has far reaching implications for the retail industry that could subject retailers to unfairly harsh penalties and restrictions on future sales promotions."
He also told WalletPop, "Last year, we worked with nationally recognized crowd management experts to create and implement a successful, comprehensive and first-of-its-kind nationwide plan that incorporates proven crowd management techniques into the unique circumstances of a retail setting. The plans worked very well during our holiday sales events."
The National Retailer Federation has published a handbook on effective crowd management. The next time you join a throng waiting for the doors to open at a big box retailer, look for ample signage, designated lines, public address announcements, tickets or wristbands, defined entry and exit sites, and sale items dispersed through the store. If you don't see any sign of such crowd planning by the store, you might be wise to back away. When the gate drops at opening time, it could get ugly.
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