Stairway to Health
The link between fire safety and physical activity is causing health and safety experts to promote the daily use of the stairs in multi-story office buildings.
- By Seth Valchev
- Oct 01, 2017
Slowly but surely, the responsibilities of health and safety practitioners are expanding. While mitigating the risk of physical accidents once dominated, now attention is moving to the prevention of long-term diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
Even in the most physically dangerous sectors such as oil exploration, "lifestyle" conditions now pose a clear and present danger. In developed nations, they account for the bulk of health spend and time off work and, by 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates they will account for almost three-quarters of all deaths worldwide.
They are different disciplines, but the mitigation of accidents and prevention of long-term illness often mix. For example, an increase in our average size and weight has resulted in slower evacuation times from the helicopters that serve North Sea drilling platforms. This in turn has resulted in a reduction in the number of passengers being allowed to fly at any one time and a steep increase in costs.
A similar but more common dynamic exists with regard to the efficient evacuation of multi-story office buildings in the case of fire or, perhaps just as worrying at the moment, terrorist attack. As John Abrahams and Paul Stollard point out in their book "Fire from First Principles: A Design Guide to Building Fire Safety," it is vital that building occupants both know where the emergency stairs are and that they have the physical fitness required to use them.
At the same time, a lack of physical activity during the working day is a major risk factor for the development of long-term conditions. Office staff who are inactive are significantly more likely to become obese and to suffer from vascular conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. Even some forms of stress, anxiety, and depression are linked to a lack of exercise.
Two Birds, One Stone
It is the link between fire safety and physical activity that is now causing many health and safety experts to re-evaluate and promote the daily use of the stairs in multi-story office buildings.
While once the office stairs were seen only as a means of escape in case of emergency, now all staff are being encouraged to use them in place of the elevators wherever they can. Not only does the change boost staff wellness generally, but also it makes people much more familiar with a building's escape routes and more physically able to use them.
Such is the change in thinking that new global building certifications such as the Delos WELL Building Standard and the Fitwel healthy building certification require building operators to promote stair use in their properties as a condition of qualifying.
"Sedentary behavior and a lack of physical activity are major risk factors for long-term conditions," said Paul Nuki, founding editor of NHS.uk and a co-founder of StepJockey, a digital health business that promotes stair use in large office buildings. "By encouraging office staff to use the stairs in place of the elevators and escalators, property owners can dramatically lower this risk while at the same time boosting fire safety."
Stair climbing is officially classed as a vigorous form of physical activity and burns more calories per minute than jogging. The health benefits of stair climbing1 are well documented with studies showing that climbing just four or five flights of stairs a day can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke by up to 30 percent if made a habit over time.
How to Boost Stair Climbing in Your Buildings?
It is relatively easy to boost stair use in almost all office buildings because fire safety regulations already mandate that stairs are well positioned and maintained.
The academic research, of which there is much, shows the single most important factor in efficiently promoting stair use is to make sure stair entrances are well sign-posted with effective health messaging. "The key is to place good, strong, and motivational signage at all the key point-of-decision points," said Nuki. "Every elevator call button should have a prompt next to it suggesting you take the stairs. Likewise, there should be a sign adjacent to every stair door to nudge people in."
The academic evidence base shows2 that well-placed stair prompts increase stair use in most buildings by 50 percent and that the impact is maintained over time.
This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.