March 1, 2023

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Disabled workers’ lives at risk due to poor emergency evacuation procedures, finds report

Disabled workers’ lives are at risk due to ill-informed emergency evacuation procedures, a report has found.

The study by Evac+Chair International found a quarter of business leaders are not aware how many of their employees have access needs and four in five are unsure about their responsibilities.

The report, called Risky Business, also found one in 10 business leaders are either not prepared, or unsure if they are adequately prepared, to safely evacuate employees needing assistance.

The results have led to calls for more guidance from the government and legal requirements for life saving evacuation equipment.

Gerard Wallace, Managing Director of Evac+Chair International, said: “There are more than 4.8m disabled people in UK workplaces and this figure is rising.

“Those responsible for their safety are falling short, with a clear lack of knowledge, understanding and investment amplifying risk in emergency situations.

“Despite recent tragedies highlighting how important it is to be prepared to safely evacuate everyone from multistorey buildings, our findings show that safe evacuations for all clearly needs to move higher up the agenda.

“Our report makes the case to the Government for better education and a firmer legal landscape.”

Fire safety legislation “doesn’t do enough to protect those with access needs”

The report found 82% of organisations would like the government to provide more clarity on their responsibilities surrounding fire safety – while more than two thirds think evacuation equipment should be a legal requirement.

It also discovered 67% of decision makers believe there is a culture of non-compliance or exploitation of loopholes in the business community, surrounding evacuation measures.

And more than one quarter of respondents do not have someone solely responsible for evacuations.

Furthermore one in five do not take temporary mobility challenges – such as pregnancy or a broken leg – into consideration in their safety plans.

Risky Business has reported that 68% of business decision makers think fire safety legislation does not do enough to protect those with access needs – cost of equipment and a lack of information were cited as the biggest challenges for developing suitable procedures.

“I was stuck on the 22nd floor”

Alongside the report, personal stories were shared from those who have experienced challenges or issues over being evacuated. One example, was Gill, who explains:

“In a senior role in communications, I worked in a shared office in a 22-storey building.

“My knee had gone as a result of chronic arthritis so I was using a knee brace and a walking stick at the time. This temporary mobility problem was made worse when I went downstairs because of putting weight on it.

“The fire alarm went off and I was stuck on the 22nd floor with the fire warden. It wasn’t a drill but they told us to wait there and if they had no choice, we would have to use the lift.

“I asked about equipment and they didn’t know whose responsibility it was… building owner, landlord, the company I worked for. It was worrying because it wasn’t a drill, so we didn’t know if we were at risk.”

Campaigns continue for disabled evacuation planning

In 2022, disabled campaigners launched a legal challenge against the government for failing to implement the Grenfell Tower inquiry’s call for evacuation plans for disabled people in high-rise buildings. The decision is expected imminently.

Sarah Rennie, Disabled Evacuation Campaigner

Sarah Rennie, an Accessibility Consultant and fire safety campaigner of Claddag, which represents disabled and older people impacted by the Building Safety Crisis following the Grenfell Tower disaster, said decision makers would be responsible for future incidents.

She said: “The disabled community, making up one in five of the working age population, is placed in danger every day because of building design and management practices.

“The vast majority of us become disabled during our lives so it’s important to expect colleagues to need support next week which they might not need today.

“Any day of the week you should expect a disabled visitor, supplier or client to enter the building. Businesses must have practices in place to plan for known-unknown scenarios like this.

“The disabled residents who died in Grenfell Tower had no effective plans to escape or aids to do so. If we do not change our practices then we have to take personal and organisational accountability for future preventable deaths and life-changing injuries.

“In workplaces, we need to ask ourselves what our practices say about how we value the lives of our disabled colleagues, visitors and friends.”

Gerard Wallace added:  “Current legislation is not fit for purpose, offering little clarity to businesses and those responsible for multistorey buildings.

“This ambiguity, and the fact that provision of appropriate equipment is not a legal requirement, is clearly enabling a ‘slippery shoulders’ culture within businesses.

“Businesses are calling for more guidance and urging policymakers to make the law work harder for those facing access barriers. It’s time to close the legislative gap.”

Fire Safety in 2023 eBook

SHP's sister site, IFSEC Insider has released its annual Fire Safety Report for 2023, keeping you up to date with the biggest news and prosecution stories from around the industry.

Chapters include important updates such as the Fire Safety (England) Regulations 2022 and an overview of the new British Standard for the digital management of fire safety information.

Plus, explore the growing risks of lithium-ion battery fires and hear from experts in disability evacuation and social housing.

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