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Safe evacuation

12 March 2018

All organisations need to be prepared for any emergency situation and evacuating a multi-storey building requires a lot of preparation warns Gerard Wallace.

ADDITIONAL PRECAUTIONS need to be taken into account to accommodate those who are mobility-impaired to ensure the risk level is reduced when evacuating a building. Accessibility for both workers and visitors is an important issue for any organisation. A key element of any health and safety policy is to ensure that anyone with mobility issues can be safely evacuated from upper floors of buildings when lifts are out of action in an emergency.   

As outlined in the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, it is no longer the responsibility of the fire and rescue service to facilitate the evacuation of non-domestic premises.  It is the employer’s or service provider’s responsibility to evacuate all people from a building in an emergency. Evacuation procedures should be established with designated and trained staff to assist those in need during the evacuation process. Those employees must undergo practical training in the use and operation of any evacuation equipment that may need to be used. 

Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, employers also have a duty to assess any risks that affect the health and safety of employees and put in place appropriate procedures to be followed ‘in the event of serious and imminent danger’.

Put simply, it is not enough to ensure that your building is accessible – you also have to ensure it can be exited safely by all employees in an emergency. Fire risk assessments must, therefore, take into account anyone for whom mobility issues mean that they rely on a lift to move up and down a building.

The structural provision of escape, for example fire stairs or escapes, is clearly inappropriate for such people.  That makes the inclusion of evacuation equipment such as evacuation chairs and your team trained to use them, vital.

An emergency evacuation caused by a fire or security incident is, of course, a worse-case scenario.  There are, however, other situations which could be problematic for people with mobility issues such as an out-of-operation lift, which can have health and safety implications unless proper planning and provision are carried out.  

Probably the most common is a lift failure or power outage. While not life-threatening, these situations could be distressing for someone unable to use stairs.  While colleagues may be willing to help, without proper equipment or training, there is always a risk of personal injury in such situations.

Understanding diversity 

In contemporary society, many people want to carry on working after the age of 65 and companies now actively court older workers. According to a report in The Economist, between 1995 and 2015, the number people working aged over 65, has more than doubled to over one million and it is estimated that by 2020, one-third of the workforce will be over 50.  Older workers are often praised for their reliability, experience and loyalty and for the ‘soft skills’ in areas such as customer services.

It is essential that the older employees, who may not be as physically able as their younger colleagues, and more people who are disabled joining the workforce are considered when emergency escape routes are established. 

It is also apparent that more people with physical impairments are now seeking employment opportunities.  This is driven by the government encouraging both employers and employees to find roles where disabilities may no longer be a barrier to earning.  

There are nearly seven million people with disabilities of working age in the UK. Government figures have reported a steady rise in the numbers employed.  In 2016, the UK employment rate among those with permanent disability and of working age was 46.5 per cent ie 4.1 million. 

According to the Papworth Trust, only 17 per cent of people with disabilities were born with their impairment - the majority acquiring their disability during their working lives. For people with disabilities and, to a greater or lesser degree, older workers, accessibility to the workplace is a key issue. When considering this, we tend to think in terms of ensuring that people can get into and move safely around the workplace.  

Building design is adapted to incorporate ramp access, wider doorways for wheelchair access and passenger lifts – all of which provide valid solutions for accessibility. They don’t necessarily, however, look at how people can get out of a building in an emergency.  

Getting it right

Nationwide, the world’s biggest building society, has worked in partnership with West Midlands Fire Service (WMFS) in a Primary Authority Scheme since 2011. This is to ensure a single point of contact on fire safety and a consistent standard across the society’s entire estate.

Evac+Chair also forms an important element of the partnership by providing a service that extends beyond the provision of stairway descent equipment to a full advisory role which includes initial site surveys, staff consultation and training.

Nationwide takes a risk-based approach to the decision to have evacuation chairs, taking into account the potential needs of both employees and customers. Evacuation chairs are installed wherever they are considered appropriate to ensure those who are mobility- impaired can exit a building safely in an emergency.

While stair-descent equipment is commonly perceived as being primarily for wheelchair users in the event of an emergency evacuation, there are other circumstances where they can play an important role.

Andrew Beckett is the society’s risk consultant for workplace services and his remit includes the organisation’s fire risk assessment procedures. He commented that emergency evacuations are extremely rare but we also have to consider what is needed in the more likely event of a lift failure where we have people who would have difficulty using stairs.  

While this would, of course, apply to wheelchair users, there may be medical conditions – someone with breathing difficulties due to asthma or subject to panic attacks – which would determine the need for assistive equipment. 

Nationwide has a personal emergency evacuation plan (PEEP) process in place so that it can assess employees’ needs on an individual basis.  Its priority is to keep people safe, but it is important to ensure that it also preserves personal dignity.  As a result, it consults staff on their needs and involve them in the choice of solution.

Evacuation equipment 

The decision to install assistive equipment such as evacuation chairs needs to be taken on a building-by-building basis to fit the needs of each employee, who may be disabled. Under the Equality Act 2010, a ‘disabled person’ is defined as someone with a physical or mental impairment which has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ effect on their ability to do normal daily activities such as descending stairs unaided. 

Equally, there are some medical conditions that, while they do not qualify as disabilities, can impede mobility.  With an older workforce, given national statistics, it is almost inevitable that a percentage will suffer from osteoarthritis (figures show that 33 per cent of the population aged 45 plus have sought treatment for the condition).  

While these and other age-related conditions could impact on someone’s physical capabilities in terms of mobility, they certainly shouldn’t be considered a bar to employment on health and safety grounds. 

Evacuating high rise buildings can present a number of challenges, the most obvious one being the potential distance needed to travel down the stairs to exit the building. These kinds of buildings set themselves apart from others that have a single staircase due to the time it takes to get down multiple sets of stairs. 

Evacuation chairs have proved to be the most efficient and user-friendly, enabling the operator and passenger to safely exit the building. Due to more than one person possibly needing assistance, other types of evacuation product may be required such as slide sheets, rescue mats, evacuation chairs or stretchers. All evacuation aids need to be located in a designated refuge point which is specified in the buildings fire strategy. Each fire exit has to accommodate the able-bodied and mobility-impaired therefore all equipment has to be readily available and accessible in the refuge point.

Evac+Chair offer a simple and effective solution to ensure a safe exit from work for an increasingly diverse workforce. Even though many assume that their office’s fire alarm is unlikely to ever go off, unless it is a drill, it is more likely than many think that the fire alarm will ring at some point in their work life. Therefore, it is essential that these precautions are taken into account when installing safety escape routes in the workplace for those who are disabled.

Gerard Wallace is managing director of Evac+Chair. For more information, visit www.evac-chair.co.uk