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Occupational health & safety: Why fire drills matter

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Basic Workplace Investigation Techniques
13 Jun - 15 Jun at The Westin Calgary (Downtown)
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When I was young, a fire drill usually meant a welcome escape from the classroom.  Marching single-file, my classmates and I would end up in the schoolyard, where we’d enjoy what felt like an extra recess period.

Fast-forward to working life, and fire drills have – for many of us – become synonymous with annoyance.  In a busy office, the fire-bell signals an unwelcome interruption of the work day, and a long walk down a crowded flight of stairs with our co-workers.

So how often do we just ignore the bell, close the office door, and keep working?  My own self-incriminating answer is “too often”.  And this past week, I stopped to consider just how foolish that is.

In that regard, this past week brought tragic news and horrific scenes from Kenya, where a terrorist attack on a busy shopping mall forced an urgent evacuation of shoppers, visitors and employees.  That was no fire drill.  It was an emergency of the worst kind; and one can only imagine the panic that all of those people must have felt.  Likewise, one can only imagine the extent to which some of those people were perhaps helped – while others might have been hindered – based on their level (or lack) of familiarity with evacuation routes and emergency exits.

In any emergency situation, whether large-scale or small-scale, preparedness is critically important to improving the odds.  Indeed, preparedness is a fundamental principle of occupational health and safety, and it is embedded in the legislation.  In Ontario, the Occupational Health and Safety Act has long-stipulated that every employer “take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker”; and, more recently, the Bill 168 amendments to the Act require employers to take precautionary steps to address workplace violence as an occupational health and safety issue.  Accordingly, conducting regular fire drills and evacuation training, and ensuring that employees are familiar with emergency protocols, are key elements of occupational health and safety compliance for employers.  Moreover, it is incumbent upon employees to support and participate in those initiatives.

In the occupational health and safety context, employer compliance and employee participation can pay live-saving dividends.  By way of example, many will remember that in the case of an April 2013 shooting incident at a daycare in Gatineau, Quebec, no children were injured and staff members were later praised for their safe evacuation of the youngsters.  One would think it a good bet that the employer had trained those staff members on emergency and evacuation procedures, that the young students had participated in at least one fire drill, and that the preparedness of both staff and students helped to save lives that day.

All of this is to say that although fire drills can often be inconvenient, that’s no excuse (for employers or employees) to ignore their importance.  So, the next time the fire-bell rings in my office building, I intend to “get with the drill”.

Jason Beeho