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Evacuation planning and exercises are more important than ever in construction since COVID-19
by Leigh Harris

Has your work site conducted an evacuation drill in the last twelve months? If not, you should be placing this important exercise as a high priority. With supply chain disruptions, increased tightening of government regulations, stringent hygiene, and social distancing measures due to COVID-19, the pressure to rapidly adapt has placed additional pressure on staff and contractors in the industry. It is no wonder that activities such as evacuation exercises are at the back of the to-do list, as they require everyone on-site to ‘drop their tools’ and cease all work for a short period of time. 

There is a common misperception across most industries that evacuation drills are compliance-based only, thus a ‘waste of time’ or not accurately represent an actual emergency. This is often due to a lack of awareness or acceptance of the risks themselves (i.e. ‘that could never happen to us’) or a lack of forethought into making these activities realistic and engaging for the workers. To combat this, a top-down approach to emergency and safety awareness is vital. If the senior foremen do not take the exercise seriously or disparage the activity, it is hard to expect their crews to either.

While COVID-19 did not heavily impact the construction industry as other industries such as retail or hospitality, the economic downturn has led owners and developers to hold off moving forward with new construction projects. This, in turn, prompted many construction firms to downsize and increase the levels of underemployment in this highly casualised industry. 

The staff disruptions, as mentioned above, compounds the issue that the construction industry is one of the most high-risk workplaces in Australia. There are many hazards that are unique to these work sites that could jeopardise the safety of your staff and contractors. 

Could you confidently state that all of your staff and contractors:

  • Know where your evacuation assembly areas are located?
  • What their responsibilities are during an emergency?
  • Are familiar with the closest fire exits to their workspace?
  • Know the Wardens in their building?

If you have answered ‘no’ to any of these questions, it is likely that your staff and contractors are NOT currently best prepared for an emergency.

We need to remember, emergencies aren’t just fires, especially in construction. Some of the most common emergencies you may encounter at a construction site include: 

The above scenarios are important to consider when planning and facilitating meaningful and productive evacuation exercises. Each site will pose different specific hazards, for example, if you are working near or above a major gas or fuel pipeline. Your Emergency Response Plan (ERP) should ideally outlay the key risks so that you can exercise against these scenarios, rather than simply sounding a fire alarm for every drill.

Tips on facilitating meaningful and practical evacuation exercises at your worksite

Take non-compliance seriously:

The life safety of yourself, staff and contractors take precedence over deadlines and any project or tasks. Wardens should be trained and encouraged to take names and report non-conformers. If there is no policy regarding compliance to participating in emergency drills, consider developing a policy that defines the staff and contractor requirements during an emergency situation (including exercises). Once this is developed, inform all staff, including the information in any site inductions, and follow through with any breaches. Formal warnings or other disciplinary actions can be enforced if deemed necessary. If one person does not comply, you will generally see many others following suit, as they are ‘following the herd’. This youtube video is an excellent demonstration of the power of herd mentality, showcasing a study conducted by the famous psychologist Phillip Zimbardo (known for his early work, in particular, the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment).

‘Dangerous Conformity’ – Click here to watch

Are your evacuation diagrams up to date?

In building construction, there will be various stages of the project where exits are accessible or blocked off. Site walkthroughs should be encouraged for all staff and contractors during different project phases to ensure that they know where to exit safely. Evacuation diagrams are required to be installed in prominent locations so that a person does not need to search for one in case of emergency. Importantly, they must be accurate and not reflect previous phases of the project or previous building designs; therefore, updating the evacuation diagrams should be placed as part of the project scope. The last thing you want is a group of staff or contractors walking to a blocked exit.

But we don’t work on a construction site, and our office hasn’t been renovated/altered in the last five years?

That is great (well, not really, but it is fantastic your evacuation diagram is accurate). BUT, when was the last time these diagrams were reviewed? All evacuation diagrams expire after five years as per AS 3745:2010, Planning for emergencies in facilities. 

Why does it matter if we comply with this standard if they are correct?

Whilst accurate but out of date diagrams may not impede your staff and contractors’ ability to evacuate safely in an emergency if something goes wrong and you face a coronial inquest, non-compliance to the standard could potentially expose the company to civil or criminal action.

Scenario-based exercises create a more realistic experience

It is ideal to use realistic scenarios that are based on the current risks of the workplace. However, it critical to ensure that the complexity of the scenario matches the capability of your staff and wardens. If you make the exercise too difficult for staff, contractors and wardens to succeed, you potentially set them up for failure. This can lead to pushback from senior staff and decision-makers and cause yourself as the coordinator of the evacuation a lot of stress and unnecessary grief.

Consider multiple observers and surveys

Surveys are a great way to get feedback from the actual evacuees.; you can’t be everywhere at once. Engage with staff and encourage them to participate with small items such as coffee vouchers, a team BBQ, or another token gesture to entice participation. Surveys can help understand the current culture towards evacuation exercises, identify problems and frustrations amongst your staff and contractors, and, importantly, capture what information the staff and contractors require from you to understand the process better.

External validation is available, and the best way to learn what is holding your site back from being genuinely resilient in an evacuation scenario

Whilst some large construction firms use internal subject matter experts (SME’s) to run the evacuation programme, many have turned to external professional organisations to develop scenarios based on the sites specific risk profile, train and educate staff members in emergency procedures, develop complaint and easy to read evacuation diagrams, and evaluate evacuation exercises. This external assistance can provide valuable insights and strategies to enhance the work site’s overall emergency resilience.