Personal evacuation plans are key for disabled occupants, but evidence suggests that training in evacuation procedures and equipment is not up to standard.
Risk Assessing the evacuation process for disabled employees and those with mobility problems requires a proactive approach by employers. The Equality Act 2010 clearly specifies that an employer’s duty of care now extends to providing reasonable provision and adjustment for disabled members of staff.
This obligation is further supported by current fire safety legislation and standards. Under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order in England and Wales, similar legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and BS 9999: 2008: Code of practice for fire safety in the design, management and use of buildings, those with responsibility for the management of premises must provide adequate means for emergency escape for all building occupants, not just their employees.
Many employers do consider the measures necessary to evacuate disabled and mobility impaired people in the event of an emergency. However, as a result of how legislation is structured and communicated, a significant proportion of employers and premises managers struggle to determine the full scope of their legal obligations.
A personal evacuation plan (PEEP) – an essential need for those with walking difficulties – should specify a planned route to safety and identify individuals who can provide assistance to occupants with disabilities and mobility problems. The training or practice needs of such individuals must also be considered.
Employers should take action to ensure that mobility impaired or disabled workers are not exposed to any significant dangers by carrying out a full risk assessment, which should be reviewed on a regular basis. Any ongoing risks identified in the assessment should be quickly mitigated.
The provision of facilities that aid safe evacuation should also be considered an important part of the fire risk management process. In particular, there are two important issues which emphasise the importance of PEEPs and the use of specialist equipment, such as evacuation chairs, to aid quick evacuation.
Firstly, the use of lifts is often not permitted during an evacuation. Secondly, refuge points should only ever be seen as temporary areas where those with mobility problems can wait until they are safely evacuated.
Refuge points, or areas of comparative safety, have been incorporated into the design of many commercial buildings, and are vital for those unable to use stairways unassisted, as well as those assisting them, to safely evacuate. However, BS 9999 clearly specifies that refuge points should only be temporary areas. Crucially, they are not to be used as holding areas where individuals await rescue by the fire service.
Ensuring that a PEEP is in place is paramount, but even the most comprehensive plan can become redundant, and occupants put at risk, if employers do not ensure that people are correctly trained in how to adhere to them.
Regular training sessions and communication exercises should be held, and the evacuation plans of those staff with mobility problems reviewed. In addition, emergency drills should be carried out regularly and incorporate training on how to use essential equipment needed during an emergency, including stairway evacuation chairs and ski sheets.
Specialist evacuation chairs, in particular, are an important option in many organisations. These allow disabled and mobility impaired occupants to safely descend staircases, with staff assistance. It is vital that staff are trained in how to operate these devices.
However, a recent survey of 200 businesses, conducted by Evac+Chair, has raised some concerns. It found that, while 40% of respondents own evacuation chairs, they do not use them during evacuation training. The results also revealed that, in a high number of organisations, the trained employee responsible for health and safety equipment no longer worked for the company. Even though 73% of respondents said they had hired replacements for the post, a worrying 40% said that person was not yet trained in using essential equipment, such as evacuation chairs. Training a team of staff, rather than just one person, would seem the sensible option.
In addition to PEEPs for specific occupants, a comprehensive emergency fire action plan should be in place which specifies the evacuation procedures for everyone, including people with disabilities. This should be clearly communicated and instructions given in a number of different formats – for example, Braille, audio and large print. Incorporating other modifications, such as ramps and vibration alarms (for those with hearing impairments) can also aid safe evacuations.
Disabled and mobility impaired occupants must be regularly reminded of the specifics of their PEEPs. Frequent and robust training in the required procedures for all occupants helps to ensure that an evacuation plan achieves full potential and serves its core purpose of helping to save lives.