Black Friday: Safety first, the Fed warns stores

lines of shoppers during Black FridayBlack Friday may be among the most anticipated shopping events of the year for deal hunters, but it's also the most treacherous. Crowds of over-excited shoppers hungry for a doorbuster sales can quickly become a stampeding mass. Now, a government agency is encouraging retailers to take proper safety precautions.

The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has sent letters to 14 CEO's of national retail chains, urgingstepped-up safety precautions. In 2008, a security guard at a Long Island Walmart store was trampled to death.

"Crowd-related injuries during special retail sales and promotional events have increased during recent years," said Assistant Secretary for OSHA Dr. David Michaels. "Many of these incidents can be prevented by adopting a crowd management plan."

OSHA has developed a fact sheet meant to guide retailers with tips like having trained security personnel or police officers on-site, setting up barricades or rope lines in advance of customers arriving at the store, and having emergency procedures in place. The National Retail Federation has also issued detailed guidelines for promotional events.

But many stores have already implemented these measures. Last year, Walmart allowed customers into stores one hour before the doorbusters became available and had them form new lines at various points within the stores, and Best Buy did practice runs before Black Friday itself.

In the wake of Walmart security guard Jdimypai Damour's death, Walmart's marketing was blamed. Damour's family filed a civil suit claiming that Walmart's ads were designed to draw large, frenzied crowds and created a frantic and dangerous atmosphere. OSHA cited Walmart for exposing workers to a recognized hazard and fined the company $7,000. Criminal charges were avoided when Walmart set up a victim's compensation fund.

The claims about what role advertising played, if any, are still unresolved, but as someone who covers retail and Black Friday, I have to wonder what role we all play -- stores, shoppers and the media -- in what happens Black Friday morning.

The New York Timeswondered the same thing on its editorial pages shortly after Damour's tragic death, questioning if the media attention paid to the many sales and ways to get the best deals served to fuel the stampede. Personally, I have my doubts -- human behavior and the crowd mentality come from someplace other than the news outlets -- but to all the dedicated Black Friday deal hunters hoping to be the first through the doors, I do hope you'll be aware of those around you. A $100 notebook computer or $200 LCD TV is not worth injury, or doing something you may regret later.
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