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November 24, 2005

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Exit strategy

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What’s your exit strategy? Roz

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In an emergency situation everybody in the workplace must be able to evacuate the premises quickly and safely. For physically disabled members of staff this may be more difficult, so it is up to the employer to ensure that adequate provision is made for them to be able to escape alongside their able-bodied colleagues. Barry Scholes explains how.

Ten per cent of the current UK workforce would have difficulty in evacuating a building if they were unable to use the lifts during an emergency. Stairway evacuation is often impossible – not just for people in wheelchairs, but also for people with walking difficulties, heart disease, epilepsy, and so on. To add to these difficulties, the potent combination of an ageing population and the likely extension of our statutory retirement age will inevitably have an effect on the overall mobility of the workforce.

Architectural advances are having a real impact on emergency management procedures, both in the UK and internationally. Vertical villages (the latest term for high-rise buildings!) are throwing up new challenges as they reach ever-new heights. The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur each hold 5000 people, while the new London Bridge tower, due for completion in four years’ time, will be the tallest building in Europe.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) makes it clear that employers must provide adequate access to all buildings. An individual can no longer be denied employment on the grounds that a building is unsafe, or inaccessible. Normally, employers meet these provisions by means of a ramp from the exterior into the building. Once inside, elevators generally allow the peripatetic workforce to move around at will, and the employer is deemed to have met both their legislative and moral obligations.

Legislative bite

Although some have criticised it for its lack of teeth, the DDA was the first piece of legislation to address the rights of those with mobility problems in any comprehensive way. But while it does protect the employment rights of those with mobility problems, it has very little to say about how to evacuate those same employees during an emergency situation, such as a fire.

There are other fundamental omissions in the legislation. For example, employees are instructed not to use the lifts during a fire, because they can act as natural chimneys and harbour dangerous concentrations of gases. Yet the DDA makes no requirements for employers to provide a means of escape for those unable to use the stairs during such emergencies. The standard advice is to identify a ‘place of safe refuge’ on each floor, so that employees with mobility difficulties can remain where they are likely to come to the least harm. They are advised to remain there and await rescue, when the Fire Service can safely enter the building.

The Area of Safe Refuge, according to BS5588: part 8 is: “An area that is enclosed with a fire-resisting construction (other than any part that is an external wall of a building) and served directly by a safe route to a storey exit, evacuation lift or final exit, thus constituting a temporary safe space for disabled people to await assistance for their evacuation.”

In fact, the document further states that “refuges are relatively safe waiting areas for short periods. They are not areas where disabled people should be left indefinitely until rescued by the fire brigade, or until the fire is extinguished.”

This has been endorsed by the Home Office Guidelines to fire authorities, which state that the evacuation of all staff is the responsibility of the employer or occupier, and not the Fire Service, many branches of which have dropped the ‘Rescue’ bit from their title. In 2006 these responsibilities will extend to hotels, nursing homes and residential care homes, where, in 2003, some 20 fires a week were recorded as a national statistic. The general duty of care under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 will be extended under the Fire Precautions in the Work Place Act, and hotels, as well as tall office buildings, are no exception.

Clearly, this practice raises an assortment of moral issues, but also some more practical difficulties. Historically, most European countries have depended on rescue services, such as the Fire Brigade, but rescue is not their primary responsibility and they cannot guarantee arrival within a specific time. The Fire Service has limited resources with which to attend a fire, or it may be engaged elsewhere. The responsibility must therefore fall on the employer. There is also the issue of multi-tenancy occupier buildings, where it is not the landlord but the employer or employers who are responsible for the employees within the building.

Times are changing, however. New amendments to the DDA came into force in October 2004 which strengthens the requirements placed on employers. From October, it has been unlawful for businesses to treat disabled people less favourably than other people for any reason related to their disability. Where a physical feature of a building makes it impossible or unreasonably difficult for disabled people, employers must take reasonable steps to remove or alter the feature, or provide a reasonable alternative method of overcoming the problem.

Three separate European directives have also influenced building evacuation: Health and Safety CE Directive 89/391; Manual Handling CE Directive 90/269; and Equal Opportunities in the Workplace CE Directive 2000/43. Inevitably, the members of the EU have adopted different approaches to the urgency with which they need to implement these directives. But the UK is considered to be well ahead of the game on these matters.

Duty of care

In an emergency situation, employers have a duty of care and are required to provide employees with adequate means of escape. This includes provision of adequate supplies of the necessary equipment to cope with any emergency, as well as adequate training to use that equipment. Crucial, however, is the fact that these provisions must cater ‘even for the minority interest’.

But what constitutes “adequate” or “care” if you have a disability issue? Adequate care is quite well defined by legislation. It can be determined by the answers to a series of simple questions. Is it foreseeable that there might be a fire? And is it foreseeable that there will be difficulties evacuating employees with mobility problems if an emergency arises? If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’, an employer must consider how best to provide for the care of employees in this situation.

Risk assessment

Under the Management Regulations, employers have a responsibility to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment. Disabled people can move around a building and have access to various levels within that building, just as any other employee. Any risk assessment must take this into consideration as far as emergency situations are concerned.

Comprehensive risk analysis is essential to determine exactly who is at risk and where those risks will occur. Are there any floors which people with mobility problems will never have to go to? How many floors are there and how many exits per floor? What means of escape are available to both the able-bodied and those with mobility difficulties? The Manual Handling Operations Regulations have a direct impact on the issue of evacuation and should be factored into this assessment.

The employer needs to question what constitutes adequate care in terms of providing means of escape for other employees. Does carrying a regular wheelchair down several flights of stairs really constitute adequate care? Imagine carrying a person downstairs. The weight of a wheelchair adds about 10 per cent to the passenger’s weight, so it is a fairly heavy load, ideally requiring four people, as a single person is supposed to carry not more than 25kg.

John Abruzzo, an evacuee who worked on the 69th floor of Tower 1 of the World Trade Centre, recalled how on September 11 2001, many seemingly ordinary people did extraordinary deeds. “There was no debate on whether I would be brought down or not by these people. It was more or less a collective decision,” he said. With the use of a special evacuation mobility device/ emergency wheelchair designed for the physically disabled, Abruzzo was able to make an escape to safety. It took an hour-and-a-half to get down 69 floors. Although it is designed for one person to guide it, three or four people handled the device while heading downstairs, rotating positions as necessary.

Tailoring the solution

There are, of course, several methods and devices on the market to assist with building evacuation, such as fire proof lifts, ramps or escape chutes. But as well as requiring significant alterations to the fabric of the building (and thus incurring significant costs), methods such as escape chutes are often not ideal for evacuating employees with mobility difficulties. Evacuation chairs have been around since the late 1980s and are generally low budget, and easily fitted to new builds, as well as older types of buildings – even those of historical importance.

Buildings vary so significantly in terms of size, structure, age and how they are used that each needs to be assessed independently if employers are to ensure that they have fulfilled their statutory and moral obligations. Just as each building presents unique problems, so the provision by each employer should reflect those individual needs. Site surveys can reveal the exact specification that each client requires.

For any evacuation equipment provided, adequate training in how to use it is also important and should not be difficult for an employer to arrange. Training should take place in companies as part of the fire marshall and first-aider programmes, as it is easy to combine equipment training with these roles. Fire marshalls should simply evacuate their floor or area as normal and transfer any wheelchair users from the area of safe refuge to follow the others out of the building.

Whatever solution is provided, employers should bear in mind above all else that the ultimate form of discrimination is to be left behind waiting to be rescued while one’s able-bodied colleagues leave the building unaided.

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