FM Issue: Life Safety In The Workplace
By Donald S. Jones, Sr., CSP, P.E., MBA
Published in the October 2006 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
Whether toxic or tedious, the tiny microorganisms associated with previously undiagnosed health threats continue to cause problems in human populations. Despite major advancements in medicine and technology, including vaccines and preventive practices, rapidly spreading illnesses are a global concern—particularly in the workplace where populations are consolidated and exposure and infection can happen quickly and easily.
Currently, there is a health threat that has achieved global concern. H5N1, better known as bird flu, has grabbed the headlines with scattered reports of outbreaks around the world.
It was Benjamin Franklin who said, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” This founding father, of course, did not have 21st century facility managers in mind when he coined the phrase. Nonetheless, the turn of words is particularly apt with respect to safety condition assessments, which are fundamental factors in the ongoing operation of any building.
Safety assessment criteria will vary greatly, as will such factors as whether a structure is owner occupied by a single organization or landlord owned with multiple tenants. What effective safety assessments for all buildings share in common, however, is that the resulting life safety plans are developed from a structure specific profile which takes into full account sector classification (i.e., hospitality versus office). Bearing in mind these relative differences, what then are the elements central to a well conceived safety assessment plan?
It begins with the codes. The principal driver of building safety is full compliance with the myriad of federal, state, and municipal codes. It is essential to begin with a 360° view of not only the regulatory picture, but industry and safety association standards. What is required under the Americans with Disabilities Act or by OSHA regulations? How do facility professionals apply best practice directives from trade groups such as the National Fire Protection Association? Also, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has established emergency preparedness guidelines, which, while not all mandated, need to be fully considered and applied where appropriate.
Other significant elements for consideration. Beyond what is formally codified, there are several other factors to be considered. These elements include:
Geographic region. Seismic sensitivity is a top of mind issue in a safety assessment of a San Francisco Bay Area building, for example. However, this type of threat bears far less relevance to an evaluation of a similar structure located in Miami, where hurricane vulnerability and response preparedness require greater emphasis.
Site characteristics. Each structure must be evaluated on its merits and, conversely, its vulnerabilities or deficiencies for potentially responding to and withstanding a range of fire and non-fire related events.
Tenant type. The needs of a hospital, which is likely to include a greater percentage of non-ambulatory patients requiring assistance in the event of an evacuation, vary substantially from an office tower whose occupants could depart on their own. At the other end of the spectrum, facility managers need to consider if the building has security sensitivities, as in the case of a financial institution or government consulate. Is there an unusual risk of potential threats?
Occupancy size. While the point is largely self explanatory, it’s worth noting that well coordinated, high occupancy buildings frequently can be better prepared than smaller structures in responding to critical events as a result of a well laid safety assessment plan.
Applying captured knowledge in an effective manner. Using the information gathered about relevant code requirements, building structure conditions, and other related issues enables preparation of a written safety plan that is both site specific and eminently practical. All too often programs are too complex or out of tune with the target audience.
Maintaining a cool head and a calm, measured reaction in a critical event comes from being empowered with information. When an evacuation alarm sounds, occupants can forget something as simple as north versus south orientation. As part of its revamped safety programs following a large fire at Chicago’s LaSalle Bank Building in December 2004, management there took extensive steps to streamline life safety measures. For instance, exit stairwells were given alphabetical designations and color coded in place of the directional references.
Distilled from the overall safety plan, emergency preparedness manuals need to be clear and well written. The format must be uniform and properly summarized, and the content should be communicated effectively. Training meetings, electronic notifications, and other means should be standard operating procedures.
Employing technology for safety’s sake. Information flow and coordination pay off, and technology is increasingly playing a role in this arena. To cite a recent event, a fire broke out in a mid-rise, suburban office building in Orange County, CA last year, threatening serious consequences. However, the building had recently been equipped with a Web-based application for staff and occupant life safety training. This provided comprehensive information, which resulted in a standardized response. The use of the Web-based tool enabled a quick and effective evacuation. So smooth was the process that damage was contained and minimized, and the level of measured coordination was commended by local fire officials.
Vast advancements in applying technology to disseminate information has profound implications on building safety. Technology offers the capability not only to share information for training purposes, but also to capture participation figures and ensure compliance. Concrete data is accessible to track occupant completion. Previously, in-person live training was the standard, and compliance was dependent on all parties attending required meetings.
There is also a convenience factor. In a recent statement to The Sacramento Bee, Heidi Frieser, a manager with Thomas Properties Group, which oversees the Joe Serna Jr. Cal-EPA headquarters building in Sacramento, CA, said, “[Online training] is great, because it lets tenants do the training at their desks, on their own timetables.”
In the same published account, David Koch, manager of 101 California, a 48-story high rise in San Francisco, CA, agreed. He said that fewer than 100 of the building’s 4,000 occupants would attend twice yearly safety courses that included a small brochure and 20-minute video. However, within three days of installing the online technology three years ago, some 700 tenants had logged on. Koch noted he had seen a significant improvement at annual fire drills as well.
Safety team building requires staff and occupants working together. Any plan is only as good as the people empowered with, and committed to, its effective implementation. Safety teams—the fire brigades and fire/floor wardens made up of tenants and staff who will participate in responding in event of an emergency—need to rely on information that is consistent to ensure measured response.
Building staff teams comprised of facilities management, engineering, and security are linchpins in the safety process. They facilitate effective action by the floor wardens and fire brigades. They also serve as sources of vital information, such as location of building systems and controls, as well as first points of contact for emergency response police and fire personnel deployed to the site.
When done properly, assessments lead to consistent and accurate information in a life safety plan. Further, this knowledge gives individuals the ability to save themselves and others during an emergency event. That is a plan even Benjamin Franklin could endorse.
Gomez is president of Pasadena, CA-based Building Safety Solutions, Inc. The company specializes in building safety and architectural engineering assessment services and has leveraged this expertise to create advanced information technology products for life safety training and emergency preparedness response.
Despite the recent development and pending launch of a vaccine (possibly available as soon as 2007), H5N1 has demonstrated the tendency to mutate and evolve like other deadly viruses. The results have not been nearly as devastating as outbreaks in the past, but the chapter is not yet closed on this disturbing trend.
Historically, flu pandemics have occurred three to four times, on average, each century when new virus subtypes have emerged. In the 20th century, flu pandemics occurred from 1918 to 1919, causing an estimated 50 million deaths worldwide. This was followed by less serious outbreaks from 1957 to 1958 and 1968 to 1969.
Based on these patterns, it is likely that another pandemic may occur in the near future, especially since many flu strains that have the ability to mutate have existed for thousands of years. For instance, type A avian flu virus was first identified in Italy more than 100 years ago. In the past 10 years, this virus has reasserted itself, thus signaling the need for preventive safety measures—particularly in facilities inhabited by people who may come in contact with the flu.
The avian flu virus appears in both high and low pathogenic strains. It is the highly pathogenic or infectious strains that are of most concern. There are 15 subtypes of the flu that infect birds, and of all the subtypes to date, the subtypes H5 and H7 of the type A virus cause highly pathogenic outbreaks.
Recently, this strain of the flu has appeared in poultry across Asia, parts of Europe, the Near East, and Africa. The spread of the virus in birds, especially poultry, increases the chances for direct infection of humans.
There have been confirmed cases of the direct transmission of H5N1 virus from bird to human in Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia. And since 2004, there have been more than 200 confirmed cases of humans infected with the H5N1 strain of avian flu virus; 50% of these infections have been fatal.
The H5N1 strain is of particular concern, because it mutates rapidly and has a tendency to acquire genes from viruses infecting other animal species, including humans. Though there are very few reported cases of human to human transmission, the virus’ capacity to evolve through exposure to new hosts makes each human infection dangerous, particularly if it comes in contact with human influenza.
Contact of this kind allows the virus to adapt and gain the ability to transmit easily from human to human. The more humans become infected, whether from birds, equipment, or from other humans, the more likely a new strain can develop that is highly pathogenic. This can lead to a widespread pandemic. The key to preventing a pandemic begins with limiting the spread of the virus in poultry.
Should an outbreak of avian flu occur, managers in high risk facilities must take great care in limiting worker exposure. At particular high risk are health care, food processing, agriculture, and warehouse/storage personnel.
Given the right conditions, the virus can survive up to one week. And if an outbreak should occur, it is essential for both government and private industry to develop feasible and orderly contingency plans for containment.
Overall, the most essential component of an effective influenza contingency plan is communication. Facility managers must develop an effective network that includes governments, other industries, and facility workers.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United States Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and the World Health Organization (WHO) all recommend several approaches to limit the risk of workers (particularly those in health care) who may encounter outbreaks.
One of the first steps is to provide information on the risks—as well as the prevention—of the spread of infection. This means setting up training programs, distributing available literature, and providing worker education to anyone exposed to the illness.
It is also possible to prevent the spread of the virus simply through the reiteration of good hygiene practices. In other words, sick employees should be encouraged to stay home; personal protective equipment (PPE) should be used to minimize exposure to contaminated surfaces; employees at high risk of exposure to H5N1 should be treated with the current human influenza vaccine to prevent the mixture of human flu genes with bird flu genes; and anyone at risk of exposure should be given antiviral drugs.
Charged with coordinating efforts to maintain the daily functions of their facility, professionals also need to consider the possibility of high employee absenteeism in the event of an outbreak. For example, facility managers should work with human resources to develop a plan that encourages employees to work off-site in the event they develop flu-like symptoms (cough, eye infection, etc.) prior to any outbreak.
To limit the spread of flu, managers should ask employees to wait 24 hours after their fever subsides before returning to work. The goal is to keep the transition from low to high absenteeism seamless in the event of an outbreak.
Facility managers, especially those in charge of health facilities, need to enforce the use of PPE to limit the levels of exposure to any flu virus. For example, both the WHO and the CDC recommend the use of protective clothing, gloves, and boots or protective foot covers that can be discarded or disinfected when in contact with flu patients or infected birds.
Fit tested respirators, especially among health facility workers, should be part of a comprehensive respiratory protection program. Workers can also be given and encouraged to wear eye protection when within 3′ of a patient to prevent exposure. Finally, health care facility managers should provide precautions against possible airborne exposure by creating airborne isolation rooms (AIR) for patients suffering from flu symptoms.
Studies have shown that the H5N1 subtype is immune to some antiviral medications (amantadine and rimantadine), but oseltamivir and zanamivir are still effective against this strain of flu. Health care and agricultural facility managers should provide these antiviral medications to employees who come in contact with birds, contaminated surfaces, or patients daily as a preventive safety measure. (Source: CDC.)
Facility managers can help prevent the spread of disease that so often surprises—and then kills—unsuspecting workers. Smart precautions can help food processing, health care, education, and other high risk facilities from a deadly outbreak, thus allowing managers to maintain day-to-day functions and safeguard co-workers.
Jones, Sr., CSP, P.E., MBA is president of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) and is a regulatory expertise leader for Dow Chemical Company. He is also an adjunct safety and health faculty member at Southeastern Louisiana University. For more information on ASSE, go to www.asse.org.