Effective evacuation planning: tips for construction
There is no question that the current pandemic has compounded challenges faced by the construction industry, which is one of the most high-risk workplaces in Australia and one where many hazards are site- and task-specific. Here are some tips for effective evacuation planning in construction, covering topics such as compliance, training, evaluation and the importance of up-to-date signage.
Has your worksite conducted an evacuation drill in the last 12 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, therefore, that activities such as evacuation exercises are at the bottom of the to-do list, as they require everyone onsite to ‘drop their tools’ and cease all work for a short time. There is a common misperception across most industries that evacuation drills are compliance-based only, thus a ‘waste of time’ or not representative of an actual emergency. This is often due to a lack of awareness or acceptance of the risks themselves (ie, ‘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. Although coronavirus (COVID-19) did not impact the construction industry as heavily 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. Staff disruptions compound the fact that the construction industry is one of the most high-risk workplaces in Australia. There are many hazards that are unique to these worksites that could jeopardise the safety of your staff and contractors.
Evacuation plan checklist
Could you confidently check off that all your staff and contractors:
- know where your evacuation assembly areas are located,
- know 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 cannot be sure of any of the above, 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:
- crane/machinery accidents (such as the ‘2012 University of Technology Sydney crane collapse’);
- explosions (such as the ‘2014 Bridge Street potential explosion’, when a Sydney gas main ruptured due to construction work);
- gas leaks and chemical spills (such as the ‘2017 Arncliffe gas leak’, where 50 people needed to be evacuated); and
- personal injuries/fatalities onsite, especially due to structural collapse/falling debris (such as the ‘2019 Macquarie Park scaffolding collapse’).
The above New South Wales scenarios are important to consider when planning and facilitating meaningful and productive evacuation exercises. Also important to remember is that each site will pose different and specific hazards, if you are working near or above a major gas or fuel pipeline, for example. In short, your emergency response plan should ideally outlay the key risks so that you can exercise against these scenarios, rather than simply sounding a fire alarm for every drill. The following tips will help facilitate meaningful and practical evacuation exercises at your worksite.
Tips for effective evacuation planning
Take non-compliance seriously
The life-safety of yourself, staff and contractors takes 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 with the information on 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’.
Herd mentality: video case study
On YouTube, you can find an excellent demonstration of the power of herd mentality in a video that showcases a study conducted by the famous psychologist Phillip Zimbardo (known for his early work, the infamous ‘1973 Stanford prison experiment’ in particular). The video — titled ‘Dangerous conformity’ — is viewable at www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjP22DpYYh8.
Ensure evacuation diagrams are 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 an 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.
The importance of keeping diagrams up to date applies even for workplaces (such as warehouses) that haven’t been renovated/altered in the last five years. If this is the case in your place of work, ask yourself: 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? Well, while 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.
Employ scenario-based exercises that create a more realistic experience
It is ideal to use realistic scenarios that are based on the current risks of the workplace. However, it is 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, because 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 gesture to entice participation. Surveys can help to understand the current culture towards evacuation exercises, identify problems and frustrations among your staff and contractors, and, importantly, capture what information staff and contractors require from you to understand the process better.
Utilise external validation opportunities
While some large construction firms use internal subject matter experts to run the evacuation program, many have turned to external professional organisations to develop scenarios based on their 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 worksite’s overall emergency resilience.
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