Dollar General, one of the largest discount retailers in the U.S., operates more than 12,500 stores in 43 states. Credit: Courtesy of Dollar General

Dollar General’s discount stores are a fire disaster waiting to happen.

That’s the message from current and former federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials, who’ve been admonishing the company for years.

At one store in Wichita, Kansas, merchandise piled up, blocking an exit. At another store in Jonestown, Pennsylvania, an OSHA inspector found a metal bar barricading the exit door in a back room. OSHA has fined the company for more than 100 safety violations since 2010, warning that the company must immediately fix the problems before people die.

“In an emergency, blocked exits can be the difference between life and death,” Judy Freeman, OSHA’s area director in Wichita, said in a statement in August. “Dollar General has been cited repeatedly for these hazards at its stores nationwide. The company must immediately address these hazards before tragedy strikes.”

Now, a former OSHA official is going a step further. Former senior economist Edward Stern is calling on district attorneys in four counties across the United States to bring criminal charges against the company, which he called “criminally indifferent to the safety of their customers and their workers.”

“You could wait for a fire to occur and then prosecute the local store manager for negligent homicide (manslaughter in some states),” he wrote in an open letter posted yesterday. “But waiting for the fires will leave some workers and shoppers stuck at blocked fire exits and burned to death.”

His plea is specifically addressed to prosecutors in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania; Tuscarawas County, Ohio; Sedgwick County, Kansas; and St. Charles County, Missouri, areas where OSHA found blocked exits in Dollar General’s stores over the last year.

Stern advises the district attorneys to take a page out of history. Blocked fire exits were to blame when a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, killing 147 people. A commission later concluded that some of those who died would have escaped were it not for the blocked fire exits.

After the Ghost Ship fire killed 36 people in Oakland, California, earlier this month, investigators also found the exits blocked.

Dollar General, one of the largest discount retailers in the U.S., operates more than 12,500 stores in 43 states.

“Dollar General is committed to providing a safe workplace for its employees and safe shopping experience for its customers,” Dan MacDonald, a spokesman for Dollar General, said in a written statement provided to Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, adding, “In those circumstances where we are made aware that a store has failed to adhere to these expectations, we act quickly to address the situation.”

Jennifer Gollan can be reached at jgollan@revealnews.org. Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferGollan

Jennifer Gollan

Jennifer Gollan is a reporter for Reveal, covering labor and corporate accountability.

An Emmy Award winner, Gollan has reported on topics ranging from oil companies that dodge accountability for workers’ deaths to lax manufacturing practices that contributed to deadly tire blowouts.

Gollan uncovered rampant exploitation and abuse of caregivers in the burgeoning elder care-home industry. The series, Caregivers and Takers, detailed how operators enriched themselves while paying workers about $2 an hour to work around the clock. The stories prompted a congressional hearing, plans for prosecutions and new state legislation. 

Gollan exposed how Navy shipbuilders received billions in public money even after their workers were killed or injured. In response to her reporting, Congress passed a new federal law, the Government Accountability Office produced a report and the Pentagon began scrutinizing the safety records of more defense contractors.

Gollan’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Guardian U.S., Politico Magazine and PBS NewsHour.

Her honors include a national Emmy Award, a Hillman Prize for web journalism, two Sigma Delta Chi Awards, a National Headliner Award, a Gracie Award and two Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing Awards. She has been a finalist for an ONA Online Journalism Award, an IRE Award and two Gerald Loeb Awards. Gollan is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.