Being an inclusive employer means taking every employee’s needs into consideration when implementing Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) procedures. Procedures for fire and other emergencies should always include provisions for the evacuation of people with disability.
As an employer, it is your responsibility to make sure all employees are aware of the evacuation procedures in the workplace. Here is what you need to consider in order to ensure your evacuation procedure is inclusive of people with disability.
- Appropriate structures need to be put in place to ensure ALL employees can evacuate in an emergency.
- To enable each person with disability to safely evacuate a building, a Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan (PEEP) should be implemented for each individual.
- A PEEP is a practical measure to ensure appropriate, agreed actions are taken for the individual in an emergency. The customised document provides the framework for the planning and provision of emergency evacuation of a person with disability.
- It is best practice to plan out the assistance required (if any) well before any emergency occurs. This provides the individual with the respect, confidence and the assistance they require.
- A “fire warden” should be nominated for each work area, for example per floor in an office building, or a section of a warehouse or factory.
- A PEEP should be in place for any person with disability requiring assistance to evacuate in an emergency.
- The fire warden should be aware of any PEEPs in place for people with disability in their work area and have an understanding of the assistance that is required.
- Fire warden to advise emergency personnel (for example Fire Fighters and Police) of the location of people with reduced mobility in refuge areas.
- Evacuation drills should be conducted regularly, including practice for evacuating people with disability.
- Emergency exits should be clearly shown using illuminated exit signs.
- Emergency and evacuation procedures should be clearly displayed on appropriate signage.
Types of disability to consider
A physical, psychological, intellectual or sensory impairment, either temporary or permanent can produce a mobility impairment, which results in a person requiring assistance during an emergency evacuation. Fire Wardens should be aware of any people with mobility impairments in their work area.
Suggestions on how to modify evacuation procedures and PEEPs for employees with a range of mobility impairments are provided below. However, it is always best to discuss and develop evacuation procedures with the individuals themselves as they will be the experts in any equipment and adjustments they may require.
People using a wheelchair
- It may be appropriate to advise local emergency personnel that there are people using a wheelchair in the workplace, particularly if located in high rise buildings.
- It is not recommended to lift the person out of their wheelchair and carry them.
- There should be adequate space within fire isolated stairwells for a wheelchair user to turn around and take refuge.
- Fire isolated stairwells are protected from fire and smoke for up to two hours and can be a safe refuge area.
- Specialist evacuation chairs and other equipment are available for installation in business premises.
- See the Independent Living Centres Australia website for a range of evacuation aides.
People who are deaf or hard of hearing
- A flashing light alarm should be installed in work areas, including bathrooms.
- If no flashing alarm is installed, a co-worker should be assigned to assist the worker who is deaf or hard of hearing.
People who are blind or have low vision
- Install tactile ground surface indicators (TGSIs) on the approach to fire stairs, which indicate a change in terrain for people who are blind or have low vision (only 5% of people who are blind or have low vision have no sight at all).
- Brightly coloured step edges aid people with low vision vision and are recommended for use in fire stairwells.
Anxiety or other mental illness
- Emergency situations can be particularly stressful for people with anxiety or other mental illnesses.
- For people who have disclosed anxiety or mental illness, a “buddy” should be assigned to assist them in the evacuation process.
Emergency procedures checklist
- Have the evacuation procedures been developed to consider the needs of all employees?
- Has a fire warden been assigned to each work area?
- Is the fire warden aware of any people with disability in their area?
- Does each person who requires assistance to evacuate have a PEEP?
- Are all employees familiar with the evacuation procedures?
- Are evacuation drills conducted regularly, including practice for evacuating people with disability?
- Are smoke detectors and fire extinguishers installed and regularly tested?
- Are flashing light fire alarms installed?
- Are tactile ground surface indicators (TGSIs) installed in stairwells?
- Are all emergency exits clear and unobstructed?
- Are the emergency procedures clearly displayed?
- Are the emergency procedures available in appropriate formats to meet the needs of all employees?
- Independent Living Centres
- Safe Work Australia
- WorkCover Authority of New South Wales
- Worksafe Victoria
- Worksafe Queensland
- Return to Work SA
- WorkCover Western Australia
- WorkCover Tasmania
- NT WorkSafe
Frequently Asked Questions
In November 2010, the Australian Standard AS 3745 – Planning for emergencies in facilities recommended that occupants with disability requiring assistance to evacuate in an emergency are equipped with a Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan (PEEP) as part of the overall emergency plan. Your organisation should survey employees on a regular basis to determine any specific evacuation requirements.
The relevant section (4.2.11) Occupants and visitors with a disability in summary says:
- When developing emergency response procedures, consideration shall be given to occupants and visitors who will need help.
- Details are to be kept where the chief warden exercises control.
- Suitable strategies should be discussed with occupants with disability.
- Information on the PEEP should be given to people responsible for implementing it.
Though there is an evacuation standard in place, there is limited information regarding people with disability. In response to requests from Australian Network on Disability members to provide more detailed information, we’ve compiled the guidance below.
Can a person using a wheelchair use the lift during a fire?
The answer to this question is “No”. Our local brigade advises that the lift well is generally not fire rated and is a terrible place to be caught in an emergency.
What should a wheelchair user do to get out of the building?
While people without disability will use the fire stairs to evacuate the building, our local fire brigade has advised the following in relation to people in wheelchairs: The floor warden should advise the Chief Warden of the building that a wheelchair user is on their floor, and they will advise the fire brigade to come and evacuate that person. The wheelchair user should be brought to a place near the emergency exit. They should not be taken into the fire stairs to “wait”, unless your fire stairs have landing places that are built to accommodate a wheelchair and allow safe passage. Our local brigade also suggested that the floor warden should advise 000 of the situation, as the brigade could advise the attending units while they are on their way.
Should other staff members carry a team member down the stairs?
Our suggestion here is “No”. If your PEEP is well planned and the Chief Warden knows of the emergency and situation, the fire brigade will be the quickest and easiest evacuation solution. They are trained to assist people, are fit and know what they are doing. Dropping a person or tripping and falling down the stairs is a real possibility, especially if people are in a real emergency. You also need to consult with wheelchair users about which methods of transfer or evacuation will best meet their needs and which they are comfortable with.
Having said all of that, if there is an emergency where people are at immediate risk and the only safe place is the fire stairs, it makes sense to get the person into the stair well.
How useful are the evacuation aids on the market?
There seems to be two categories of evacuation aids on the market: Chairs that have specialised wheels/tracks that are able to be lowered down stairs, and stretcher arrangements where the user is strapped in and carried down the stairs.
- Chairs: Generally, their ease of use will be dictated by the strength of the person doing the lowering/steering and the weight of the person in the chair.
- Rescue sheets: Essentially the same strength/weight limitations apply as chairs, with the additional complication that most fire stairs wrap around corners.
It’s possible that in consultation with the fire department that one of these devices might be right for them, for the person with the PEEP and your organisation. Our advice is to not buy them unless you have undertaken the consultation with the local fire brigade and the ultimate end-user.
Our website has a link to a variety of products (through the Independent Living Centre website) but as you might expect, we don’t endorse them – they are there for you to evaluate independently.
Please note that this information is compiled by the Australian Network on Disability, not a consumer advocacy service. Our advice regarding these devices is limited to common sense and not rigorous testing.
How do I assess the right evacuation options?
The really valuable part of the emergency standard is that it promotes and encourages a plan which is developed with the person involved. The ‘right’ plan is the one that the fire brigade, the person with disability and your organisation is happy with.
What about emergency warnings?
The emergency standard suggests that:
- The needs of occupants and visitors with disability should be considered.
- This may include alternative ways of communicating information and warnings. An example of an alternative way of communicating would be flashing emergency signals as well as the traditional ‘BEEPs’ and ‘WOOPs’.
Though the Australian Network on Disability has endeavoured to provide the most appropriate assistance, you should base your actions on consultations between your team member and your local emergency services.
For more guidance on developing PEEPs, please contact your relationship manager.