A Short Guide in Case of A Fire and Emergency Evacuation

Employers and employees have emergency and crisis management responsibilities under the Occupational Health and Safety (‘OHS’) and Work Health and Safety (‘WHS’) laws. This includes the use of evacuation procedures to safely evacuate the building.

Legislative regulations do not outline the logical steps for evacuation requirements(such as keeping the escape routes clear) but they do include specific hazard control recommendations. To ensure compliance with OHS / WHS policies and procedures, here is what you should know about dealing with an unexpected fire in the workplace.

What is the Order of Evacuation in a Fire Emergency?

Employers have a responsibility to reduce or eliminate health and safety risks in the workplace. This includes any known or potential risks associated with fire hazards. Employees are responsible for complying with the employer’s hazard reduction measures, such as a fire evacuation emergency plan.
To develop an effective evacuation plan, employers should follow the 3 stages of evacuation in a fire:

  • ‘Stage 1’: Immediate evacuation;
  • ‘Stage 2’: Lateral evacuation; and
  • ‘Stage 3’: Partial evacuation.

With a stage 1 evacuation, occupants need to immediately evacuate the building or work site. During a stage 2 evacuation, individuals must move laterally to a safer area, such as moving to a different room. During a stage 3 evacuation, everyone vacates the floor.

Some emergency plans include a ‘stage four’ which is a total evacuation of the building. However, this is often considered equal to stage one. Everyone follows the exit signs to immediately leave the building.

What Can Cause a Fire in the Workplace and How Can You Prevent it?

Improperly stored flammable substances are a common cause of fires in the workplace. Other potential hazards include clutter, faulty equipment, human error, and even deliberate, criminal damage/arson.

To deal with these threats, employers need to devise an emergency plan. The standard procedure for reducing the risk of fire includes:

  • Identification of the hazard;
  • Assessment of the risk;
  • Elimination or reduction of the risk; and
  • Review and evaluation of any control strategies.

Australian Standard 1851:2012 include recommendations for routine inspections for fire fighting equipment and protection systems, and advises of the use of checklists for inspecting known fire hazards. Employers also need to ensure that workers have access to all relevant information for identifying and assessing hazards. This may include the need for Safety Data Sheets (‘SDS’) for flammable substances.

After identifying the hazard, workers need to assess the risk. This includes checking the SDS to ensure the proper storage and use of flammable substances.

The third step is the elimination or reduction of the risk, which involves a long list of potential solutions. For example, employers may find ways to completely eliminate flammable substances from the workplace. Other options include:

  • Using fire-resistant furnishings or equipment;
  • Using less flammable materials or reducing the number of materials;
  • Isolating flammable materials from ignition sources;
  • Implementing warning systems, such as fire alarms;
  • Ensuring that employees have direct access to escape routes;
  • Designing a fire and evacuation safety plan; and
  • Practicing fire drills and safety plans.

After implementing these steps, employers and health and safety representatives should continue to review and evaluate the control measures. This also includes the need to perform drills to ensure that employees understand the procedures.

How Do You Prepare for an Emergency Situation?

According to OHS and WHS Regulations, all employers need to identify, assess and reduce workplace hazards. This may include the development of an emergency plan for dealing with fires. Fire evacuation procedures should always include special provisions for people with disabilities.

A personal emergency evacuation plan (PEEP) is an individual plan for each person with a disability. The plan allows organisations to determine what assistance the person with a disability may require during an emergency evacuation. The following individuals may need their own PEEPs:

  • People using wheelchairs;
  • People who are deaf or hard of hearing;
  • People who are blind or have vision problems;
  • People with learning disabilities; and
  • People with mental illness.

The individual PEEP should be tailored to the needs of each individual. For example, wheelchairs require adequate space to turn around or take refuge in fire-isolated stairwells.

PEEPs are just one part of creating an effective fire and emergency evacuation plan. Health and safety representatives (HSR’s) or health and safety committees (HSC’s) should develop and provide ongoing review of a plan through the consultation of all workers. The plan should cover the following:

  • The need for everyone to stay calm and follow the plan;
  • Immediate action for stopping or minimising the hazard, such as using fire extinguishers;
  • Designating a person to raise the alarm;
  • Designating an assembly area for occupants to gather during the evacuation; and
  • Setting escape routes and clearly marked exit signs.

To cover these requirements, HSR’s or HSC’s should develop an emergency evacuation map. The use of emergency evacuation signs also increases the safety of workers and visitors, directing them to the emergency exit.

How Can Training Help During an Emergency?

While many OHS and WHS courses exist, these courses do not specifically address emergency evacuation training. It is the responsibility of the employer and HSR’s to help develop an effective evacuation plan based on recommended fire emergency procedures in the workplace.

Additional training may provide recommendations for reducing fire hazards in specific environments. For example, in some work settings, employees should complete confined spaces training. Working in a confined space may increase the risk of fire hazards.

100% of confined space incidents involving fire or explosion between 1980 and 1986 resulted in fatalities. Poor ventilation, unsafe atmospheric conditions, and unsuitable safety equipment contribute to the risk of death or serious injury. Workers can learn to reduce these risks through the RIIWHS202D Enter and Work in Confined Spaces course.

Summary

Fires can occur in any setting including industrial sites, construction areas, and offices. Implementing an emergency evacuation plan that includes the three stages of evacuation is a recommended step for managing this potential risk.

Employers should also develop specific procedures for evacuating the building or work site and minimising exposure to the hazard.

Confined space training can help address the fire hazards of working in an enclosed or partially enclosed space. However, each organisation needs to develop its own emergency preparedness plan for dealing with fire hazards in other settings. This should include plans for evacuating the site during a fire.

Remember to also develop PEEPs for individuals with a disability and clearly mark exit signs and escape routes.

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