Millions of Americans will flock to haunted houses and escape rooms this fall to be entertained by chainsaw-wielding maniacs, ghosts, and ghouls.
What shouldn’t be startling, though, is that workers need protections from unsafe conditions at these sites. Though their job may be to scare you half to death, the law requires safe working conditions for the people behind the masks.
Business owners who run afoul of safety standards can face tens of thousands of dollars in fines in disputes that can stretch on long after the candy and decorations are gone. Under law, OSHA can issue citations as long as six months after an inspection, and seasonal attractions are treated the same as other retail establishments.
Operators are unlikely to see attention from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration unless there is a complaint or accident, but compliance remains essential, Travis Vance, a partner at the law firm Fisher Phillips in Charlotte, N.C., told Bloomberg Law.
“If it leads to an accident, an injury, then OSHA may get involved,” Vance said. “I don’t think OSHA’s just going to stop by one of these places.”
Heart-stopping attractions such as haunted houses and escape rooms are big business this time of year. According to the National Retail Federation, Americans will spend a record $9 billion on Halloween this year. A year-round cousin is the escape room, an amusement facility in which guests work together to solve puzzles or challenges to exit a confined space. That industry is growing, too: More than 2,300 escape room facilities are now installed in the U.S., up from just a few dozen in 2014, according to the Room Escape Artist, an industry publication.
Eerie Enforcement Action
In Erie, Pa., a former kitchenware factory-turned haunted house had two floors of darkness and dozens of actors waiting to startle guests.
What the Eeriebyss Factory of Terror didn’t have, according to OSHA, was proper emergency exits, fire extinguisher training, and electrical work.
Management classified the actors as independent contractors, paying them a flat rate of $15 per day, according to OSHA’s inspection notes obtained by Bloomberg Law under a public records request. However, an OSHA inspector wrote that the circumstances “indicated that these individuals were employees, and that an employer-employee relationship did exist.”
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, OSHA can cite companies for violating specific safety standards, such as the proper use of ladders and the design of electrical systems. It can address more novel hazards under the general duty clause, which requires employers to provide workplaces free of recognized hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.
While uncommon, the Erie site was among dozens of violations OSHA has issued to these firms.
OSHA and state agencies that enforce its regulations in some areas have issued a combined 31 violations to 16 seasonal amusement facilities, records show. The facilities faced proposed penalties of more than $230,000.
For example, the Eeribyss Factory of Terror received six serious citations with proposed fines of $17,500 to the operator after a 2013 inspection. The fines were later reduced to $4,375. In 2016, the city shut down the attraction, finding it failed to meet local building codes. Its owner, Greg Sutterlin, didn’t respond to a request for comment from Bloomberg Law. The attraction has since received a certificate of occupancy to reopen, Andy Zimmerman, manager of the city’s Bureau of Code Enforcement, said in an email to Bloomberg Law.
Compliance with OSHA regulations also will help firms minimize liability from local fire inspectors or injured guests, Bill Zachry, a senior fellow at the Sedgwick Institute, told Bloomberg Law.
Fear Factors Still Safe
Facility operators should avoid live flames and flashing lights that could cause epileptic seizures in workers or visitors. They also need to design sites to accommodate sufficient emergency exits and provide fire-prevention equipment on site, Zachry said. While attractions may seek a fear factor, Zachry said operators shouldn’t forget regulations mandating the safe use of ladders by performing staff.
Maintenance is also a concern if small establishments fix unusual equipment using employees without proper training, Vance said. Poor maintenance practices could lead to injuries that must be reported to OSHA, which could prompt a broader investigation, Vance said.
All of this is on the mind of Julie Mateus, a former police officer operatingan escape room called Escape Rooms CT in Orange, Conn. To prepare the 3,000-square-foot space, Mateus and her wife worked with an architect to sort out issues like proper egress routes.
“We were like, ‘Wow,’” Mateus said. “We kind of saw the vision of how to build it up and make it look awesome.”