Heeding the Clever Employee

They wanted plugs to provide comfort as they hid in offices with closed doors or other locations and ignored the evacuation order.

"I need ear plugs--what've you got handy? Can I have these?" This request startled me, coming as it did from a senior-citizen-age office worker whose regular work environment was one of the most tomblike in the building. So I began to quiz her on what she needed and how she planned to use the hearing protection, thinking maybe a music concert with grandchildren, some target practice, or leaf blower/lawn work was causing her concern. Unfortunately, this was not the case. "Your fire alarms hurt my ears, so I want the ear plugs to help," she explained. "It's about time for another drill, right?"

All safety professionals have acute radar for trouble, and my antenna began to rise quickly and send up flares, knowing that trouble had just surfaced. The bottom line was, this was one of several employees in a multistory building who did not like the audible fire alarms, had lost the battle to "tone them down," and now were plotting ways to work around the issue. Specifically, the ear plugs were to provide comfort as they hid in offices with closed doors or other locations and ignored the evacuation order. Instead of seeing this as a potentially lifesaving drill, these clever employees posed a new age hide-and-seek, possibly endangering not only themselves, but also those who must expend extra effort to search in a fire event--from floor monitor to firefighter.

Clever employees keep safety folks on the edge of our seats. If there is a way to circumvent a safety feature, they'll find it. It must be a time problem; often, these employees (in my opinion) need more work to keep idle minds busy. I hesitate to believe these folks would want actual harm to occur to anyone. They just like bending the rules to the breaking point or even breaking the rules as much as possible without fully understanding the dangerous consequences of the game. Others like the power to disrupt. Clever employees take many forms in a work environment--ranging from the loud, belligerent, non-compliant "expert without a clue" to the professional victim. Argumentative employees are another clever type. They nitpick codes and dissect what each word means and often twist the meaning to their advantage. Each personality type can cause disinformation, controversy, disbelief, and other less-than-sterling team-building feelings.

Consider your workforce for the presence of a clever employee. Most safety professionals can call them by name and pet peeve. Some make us long for retirement (ours or theirs).

Training and Awareness
Fire safety is a tough topic to keep fresh and moving forward for employees. Burnout is a reality for safety professionals trying to keep this message fresh, and the program demands on time are plentiful.

Any great safety program has fire safety in the front line, knowing as we do that no other program has as much potential to save lives or to cause utter destruction when it fails. No other program is more essential than repeating basic fire protection at your facility until each employee can respond in a timely and accepted manner without overloading or boring them to tears. Fire safety is a rocky path to tread; training must guarantee that safe behavior is second nature. The paper documentation serves as backup to the successful program, not as the program.

Basic fire safety training includes awareness, ably effected evacuation, policy, and (in my opinion) a well-thought-out back-up plan for when things go awry. For example, if your policy is for employees to fight incipient-stage fires, the back-up plan should include enough training to ascertain when the fire is out of control and to leave.

Policy and awareness must be consistent. The official written word must be presented often and to everyone, before the workplace gossip gets out of control concerning what is allowed. An example was a section leader who talked often of using windows to escape down the building façade instead of using the quickly accessible fire stair escape. Make sure every employee receives the same information on correct evacuation. One method is to send out "snippets" of policy or protection features regularly. Put out an informational handout, reference your workplace intranet with appropriate policies, and get the correct information to everyone fast and often.

Few employees will read several pages of policy. Almost everyone will read three to five lines of bulleted safety tips. Also, tell them when something goes right. It builds confidence that your program is working in a positive way.

For all of the headaches, high blood pressure, and fits of temper they cause, clever employees serve an astonishingly positive purpose: They prevent safety professionals from forgetting or overlooking important issues. Each clever employee serves as a barometer of how the program is progressing. Silence is not golden in the safety field--it usually means critical issues have fallen by the wayside.

Employee Fire Safety Awareness Checklist

  • The facility has been evaluated by a knowledgeable fire safety professional to assess exits and fire protection features.
  • Recommendations made by the authority having jurisdiction (such as the fire marshal) are reported to upper management and read into the safety committee minutes.
  • The building(s) are physically inspected regularly, inside and outside, by knowledgeable person(s). Needed corrections are reported for repair.
  • Fire safety is discussed regularly at safety committee meetings, including ways to promote safe work habits and prevent fire in the workplace.
  • Regular fire drills are held on all shifts that the building is occupied, allowing all employees a chance to participate.
  • Alarm methods are clearly communicated to all employees. Special provisions are made for unique situations requiring assistance.
  • If a remote collection point or location is used outside the facility, each employee is advised not to traverse a danger or fire area en route.
  • A drill critique is held after each drill to identify problem areas or items indicating additional education is needed for employees.
  • Employees receive regular awareness items concerning fire safety (e-mail reminders, tips, audit results, hands-on training opportunities, check stuffer items, etc.).
  • Safety committee minutes are available and/or shared with all employees.
  • Fire extinguishers are visually inspected and signed off on monthly by a knowledgeable person.
  • Extinguishers are the appropriate size and rating for the type/use of the facility.
  • Ready replacement extinguishers are available in the event an extinguisher is discharged after hours, to ensure adequate protection at all times.
  • Fire extinguishers are physically examined for breakage or "tampering," such as gum or paper blocking nozzles. Inspection tags are in place and up to date.
  • Each employee has been advised of the company fire plan (on the first day of employment, preferably).
  • Each employee has been instructed on the policy for firefighting (to fight incipient-stage fires or to evacuate).
  • All employees have been instructed on fire extinguisher types and locations in their immediate work area by a supervisor and received hands-on instruction where/when needed.
  • Employees have the opportunity to ask questions or offer feedback in a constructive manner.
  • New employees, temporary employees, and contractors are advised of evacuation routes and the type of alarms in the facility.
  • For multi-language facilities, training and information are presented in appropriate languages to ensure understanding by all employees.
  • Employees are advised of unique or special fire safety measures in the facility (special class wiring, operations, or high-hazard areas).
  • Exits are clearly identified, lighted where required, and accessible at all times for evacuation.
  • There is a disciplinary action for non-compliance with fire and evacuation drills, and this is enforced (with zero tolerance recommended for non-compliance).
  • There is a disciplinary recourse for destruction or circumventing any safety feature or mechanism, such as blocking exits or sprinkler heads or disabling alarms.
  • There are a well-defined smoking policy (if smoking is allowed on the premises) and established areas for smoking.
  • There is a well-defined "open flame" policy that includes candles, incense burners, grills, or unique items on site.
  • Evacuation routes and special features are posted in the facility in a clear and easy-to-follow format.
  • Decorations are not allowed to obstruct exit lights and are not allowed to obstruct or impair exit paths; seasonal decorations must be fire retardant.

This article appeared in the February 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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