Emergency evacuation for people with mobility issues: why we must do better

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With research revealing poor understanding among many businesses of their duty to have arrangements in place to safely evacuate mobility-impaired people, it’s time for the government to educate building owners about their obligations and mandate the provision of evacuation equipment, to ensure a safe evacuation for everyone.

Being trapped at the top of a burning building ranks among many people’s worst nightmares. Unfortunately, disasters such as the Grenfell Tower fire of 2017 show that this fear is far from irrational. Of course, there are other workplace safety risks apart from fire, such as flash flooding, terrorism and security breaches.

For people who face access challenges, all these threats are so much worse and something they live with on almost a daily basis.

Across 2020 and 2021, 14.6 million people in the UK reported having a disability and over 4.8 million of these were in employment. This figure is set to grow with inclusivity and diversity rising higher up the recruitment strategy of many companies, coupled with an ageing population. In addition, when it comes to emergency evacuations, we actually need to expand it to include temporary mobility impairments such as short-term injuries and what is now often referred to as ‘invisible’ health conditions, such as learning difficulties and mental health conditions, which can also put people at greater risk during a fire.

Gerard Wallace: "One in 10 businesses are either not prepared at all or not sure they are prepared to evacuate disabled or mobility impaired employees."

Shocking findings

Can we say that organisations’ understanding of access barriers is also growing? I’m afraid not. A recent survey of almost 500 decision-makers at small and medium-sized businesses, published in the Risky Business report from Evac+Chair International, revealed some startling – in fact, shocking – findings.

One in 10 businesses are either not prepared at all or not sure they are prepared to evacuate disabled or mobility impaired employees.

One quarter of respondents are unaware of the number of mobility impaired people at their organisation, rising to 28 per cent at medium-sized businesses.

And one in five have only some understanding of their obligations regarding safe evacuation.
Given this hazy awareness and casual acceptance of risk, it’s clear that organisations are still playing fast and loose with people’s lives. We don’t seem to have learned the lessons of the past.

Life safety is slipping through the gaps

Why should it be the case that there is any ambiguity over something as important as evacuating people from unsafe buildings? The Risky Business report showed that there are three main shortcomings when it comes to fire safety in UK workplaces.

None of the current rules and regulations call for specific evacuation systems or equipment for people who face access barriers. Photograph: Evac+Chair

The first is that our current legal framework is not fit for purpose. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 requires every employer “to protect all workers from the risk of injury or harm at work, so far as is reasonably practicable”. But note the bit at the end: “so far as is reasonably practicable”. This is defined as balancing the level of risk against the measures needed to control it, in terms of money, time or trouble taken. What it means is that organisations are effectively left to decide whether implementing plans is “worth it” to install equipment that could help people with special access requirements to safely evacuate a building.

None of the current rules and regulations call for specific evacuation systems or equipment for people who face access barriers. This could include relatively inexpensive but potentially life-saving equipment, such as evacuation chairs, sheets and mats as well as transfer boards and seats.

Although fire risk assessments are legally required, and the PAS 79 code of practice provides prompts to help responsible persons carry them out in an appropriate manner, the legislation does not state what should be in place to overcome access challenges.

Tightening up this aspect of our legislation would provide organisations with clarity on what they must do and would go a long way towards protecting people with special access requirements.

The second shortcoming is rooted in workplace culture. The Risky Business report revealed that a staggering two-thirds of decision-makers believe that within the business community there is a culture of non-compliance or looking for loopholes in fire safety.

On the other hand, it seems that many employees with special access requirements feel they cannot be open about their needs. A study by Samsung showed that almost half of disabled people have avoided sharing information about their condition due to the perceived impact on their career. Four in ten thought they would be judged and made to feel like an outsider.
Therefore, alongside clearing up the legislation, what we need is a cultural shift towards placing a higher value on fire and life safety as well as greater openness about the diverse needs of today’s workforce.

The third area badly in need of improvement is organisations’ understanding of what constitutes a mobility challenge. It’s not only people with lifelong conditions or permanent injuries who may require extra support, but those with temporary impairments such as broken bones or dislocations, and those with physical, mental or neurological conditions like deafness or blindness, heart conditions, osteoporosis, mental health issues and learning difficulties.
Too often, temporary or invisible mobility challenges are disregarded in fire safety evacuation plans. One in five Risky Business respondents say their fire safety plan does not consider temporary mobility issues.

Taking into account the access barriers that exist in the workplace at any one time would enable organisations to provide more comprehensive protection for all employees.

Driving positive change

Preserving human life and preventing serious trauma, both physical and emotional, should be enough of a motive for strengthening workplace fire safety for everyone. But we can also add the risk of financial, legal and reputational costs including multi-year jail sentences and unlimited fines for non-compliance with the existing legislation. In extreme cases, a charge of corporate manslaughter may apply should there be loss of life.

The good news is that there is a groundswell of support for driving positive change. Four in five respondents to the Risky Business survey would like the government to provide greater clarity on roles and responsibilities, and more than two-thirds agree that having an evacuation chair should be a legal requirement.

At Evac+Chair International, we’re calling on the government to do two things. First: mandate evacuation equipment (of any kind) in every multi-storey building in the UK. Second: better educate organisations and responsible persons to understand their liabilities, risks and obligations. When it comes to evacuating people from burning buildings, we really can’t leave anyone behind.

Read the Risky Business report at: evacchair.co.uk/white-paper-risky-business-download/

Gerard Wallace is Managing director at Evac+Chair International


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