Multi-storey buildings - the importance of safe evacuation for all

All organisations need to be prepared for any emergency situation and evacuating a multi-storey building requires a lot of preparation to ensure everyone can be safely evacuated and out of danger. 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. Gerard Wallace, managing director at Evac+Chair International, explains the legal backdrop and best practice.

What does the law say?

Outlined in the Regulatory Form Order for Fire Safety 2005, it is no longer the responsibility of the Fire 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 – eg fire stairs or escapes - is clearly inappropriate for such people. That makes the inclusion of evacuation equipment such as evac 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.

Using the necessary equipment to evacuate buildings safely

The decision to install assistive equipment such as evac 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+chairs 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.