Planning for emergencies
The NEU has produced a wide range of guidance documents addressing concerns about routine health and safety issues in schools. Occasionally, however, emergency situations arise, and teachers need to know what practical steps to take.
Employers’ duties regarding emergency procedures
School emergency plans should cover all foreseeable major incidents that could put at risk the occupants or users of the school. This plan must indicate the actions to be taken in the event of a major incident so that everything possible is done to save life and prevent injury. The plan should become part of the school’s regular risk assessment.
Staff should in turn be informed of their school’s procedures to be followed in the event of emergency situations arising involving, for instance, bomb threats, fire breakout, gas leaks, electrical faults, flooding, medical emergencies, extremes of temperature owing to boilers breaking down or inadequate ventilation, problems with building works/contractors, or intruders on school premises/violence in schools.
Emergency procedures for the full range of possible incidents should be made known to new and temporary members of staff as soon as possible after their appointment.
All occupants of a school, with the possible exception of very young children, must be able to recognise alarm signals within their school and should be familiar with the available escape routes and assembly points after evacuation.
Preparing a plan
Many of the constituent parts of an emergency plan might already exist within other school policies and procedures, such as those dealing with safety on educational visits, school minibus safety, fire safety, school security etc. This information can provide the basis to which further policies and procedures can be added in order to arrive at a comprehensive planning document.
Check to see what disaster management plans have been produced by the local authority. Those drawing up an emergency planning policy for community and voluntary controlled schools must ensure that it complies with the local authority provisions. Local authority documentation can also be of great assistance to governing bodies of foundation and voluntary aided schools, in cases where local authorities consent to making such material available.
Employers of independent schools, academies and free schools will need to make their own arrangements for emergency planning, and NEU health and safety representatives and health and safety advisers should seek to ensure such policies are robust and fit for purpose. All NEU members, wherever they work, should be covered by an effective emergency planning regime.
The traditional five-step risk assessment approach works as a good model for developing school emergency plans:
- Identify the hazards posed by different possible situations.
- Decide who might be harmed and how.
- Evaluate the risk and determine the precautions.
- Record and communicate findings.
- Review and revise as necessary.
Should uncertainty arise concerning any of the above stages, expert advice should be sought.
In any emergency situation, many issues must be successfully co-ordinated if matters are to proceed in a calm, well-organised fashion. Roles should be set out in advance so that if the unthinkable happens, everyone knows exactly what they are expected to do.
Evacuation of school buildings
Evacuation: special needs and disabilities
The Equality Act 2010 requires employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to their premises to ensure that disabled people are not at a disadvantage. This includes ensuring that disabled people can leave the premises safely in the event of a fire or other emergency.
There are a number of ways of affording proper protection to disabled people in the event of an emergency. Which approaches are most appropriate in individual circumstances will depend on a number of factors, including:
- the design, layout and age of the buildings
- the number of escape routes and exits
- the number and individual needs of people using the premises.
Appropriate modifications to audible alarms and escape route signs may be necessary to enable those with visual or hearing impairments to evacuate school buildings successfully.
In order to facilitate the evacuation of those with mobility impairments, a range of options can be considered. Successful evacuation from upper floors is likely to be the most pressing concern, unless the school consists of a single storey. To resolve this problem, one or more of the following approaches might be appropriate:
- the installation of special evacuation lifts
- the provision of evacuation ‘chairs’ which can be carried down stairs by two people, one either side of the disabled person
- the creation of a specifically protected refuge in cases where use of stairways is problematic.
A refuge is an area that is separated from fire by fire-resistant construction and which has access via a safe route to a storey exit. It provides a temporarily safe space where disabled people can wait pending the assistance of the emergency services.
A school’s emergency risk assessment should inform the choice of approaches which might be most appropriate in any given setting. In the case of specific fire risk assessments it is prudent to obtain the advice of the local fire authority before making any final decision.
Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans
Emergency evacuation plans for those with disabilities are called Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPs). Where staff and regular visitors to a building require a PEEP, it should be provided by the senior manager with responsibility for premises management. The PEEP must be tailored to the individual needs of the person concerned and should give detailed information on their movements during an escape. As noted above, it is also possible that some building adaptation will be required in order to facilitate their escape and to reduce the need for personal assistance.
Flooding in schools
Following a flood warning
Where a flood warning has been issued in respect of an area, good preparation is vital to the minimisation of risk should floods occur.
- Listen out for local news reports, updates and warnings on radio and televisions.
- Follow advice from the Environment Agency, local authority and emergency services. This is important even for those in places apparently unaffected by flooding, as there may be advice regarding travel to work in the wider geographical area.
- Call the Environment Agency’s Floodline on 0345 988 1188 for more information.
- Monitor the Environment Agency’s Flooding Updates.
- Scrutinise the employer’s major incident plan and ensure it is both adequate and that safety representatives have been properly consulted.
- Working with the employer, liaise with emergency services if there is any likelihood that the premises might be evacuated in the event of a flood.
- Disseminate information and guidance to members, such as that set out on the Cabinet Office Preparing and Planning for Emergencies website.
- Electrical items should be unplugged and removed to a place of safety such as an upper storey or a high shelf.
- Gas and electricity may need to be switched off. This should be done by a competent person such as a site manager.
- Under no circumstances should the safety of staff or pupils be jeopardised.
It is important that anyone affected by a flood or a potential flood is aware of basic safety rules, for example:
- do not attempt to walk, wade or swim through floodwater
- do not drive through floodwater
- avoid contact with floodwater – it may be contaminated by sewage
- if you are trapped by flooding, stay by a window and try to attract attention.
When a school has been flooded
- Ensure that a risk assessment is carried out prior to re-occupation of the school. No-one should be expected to work without an adequate supply of fresh water and without sanitary facilities. This would be contrary to the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992.
- The affected areas will need to be dried out and thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. Floodwater contains not only silt but sewage. Dampness can promote the growth of fungus and mould which can cause allergies and breathing problems if inhaled.
- The following should be checked and verified safe prior to resumption of use:
- electrical and gas connections
- electrical equipment and plant, if affected
- heating systems, if affected
- fire safety systems.
- If portable heaters are to be used to heat and dry out the premises, ensure that they are positioned in well-ventilated areas away from combustible materials, and positioned so as not to endanger staff or pupils. Under no circumstances should petrol or diesel generators be used indoors due to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Any hazardous materials or substances which have been affected by floodwater should be quarantined and specialist advice obtained prior to their disposal. If chemicals are stored on the premises, they may have leaked out.
- After flooding, rats and other vermin can often be displaced from flooded buildings and will move to other premises in the vicinity so employers must be vigilant in checking for infestations.
- Ensure that school security has not been compromised.
- Remove damaged items and equipment, and store securely away from any building.
- Check fire exits and escape routes prior to re-occupation.
- Where there is potentially hazardous structural damage resulting from the flood, the local authority/employer should be contacted before re-occupation.
- In the event of any fire safety concerns, contact the local fire authority.
- Where health and safety concerns are unresolved, schools and/or the employer should approach the HSE for specialist advice.
Extremes of temperature
During working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be ‘reasonable’.
The temperature in workrooms shall normally be at least 16 degrees Centigrade unless much of the work involves severe physical effort in which case the temperature should be at least 13°C. Thermometers should be available at a convenient distance from every part of the workplace but need not be provided in every workroom.
The Education (School Premises) Regulations 1999 previously included minimum temperatures for different areas of a school (classrooms, sick rooms and gyms). These were withdrawn in England when the 1999 regulations were replaced by the School Premises (England) Regulations 2012. This should not prevent NEU representatives in England arguing that 18°C should remain the minimum temperature for areas with normal levels of physical activity, for example, classrooms.
Temperatures in school classrooms should therefore be at least 18ºC
The situation with regard to school temperatures in Wales continues to follow the 1999 regulations. The regulations state that, in areas where there is the normal level of physical activity associated with teaching, the appropriate minimum temperature is 18ºC. In areas where there is a lower than normal level of activity (eg sick rooms) or higher than normal level of activity (eg gyms and also washrooms), the appropriate minimum temperatures are 21ºC and 15ºC respectively.
Full NEU guidance on addressing problems of very low temperatures in schools can be found in the health and safety briefing Heating in Schools. This document sets out union advice on the relevant legal requirements and on ensuring proper precautions and clear procedures are followed in the event of extremes of temperature.
There are no specific legal maximum working temperatures for schools or indeed other workplaces.
The NEU policy is that 26ºC is the maximum temperature at which teachers should be expected to work, other than for very short periods.
Extremely high temperatures can affect the ability of teachers and pupils to concentrate and to work effectively, and can cause physical discomfort and illness. If people get too hot, they risk dizziness, fainting, or even heat cramps. In very hot conditions the body’s blood temperature rises. If the blood temperature rises above 39°C, there is a risk of heat stroke or collapse. Delirium or confusion can occur above 41°C. Blood temperatures at this level can prove fatal and even if people recover, they may suffer irreparable organ damage.
A spell of very hot weather, therefore, can increase the risk of adverse health consequences for pupils and teachers, especially if the school buildings accumulate heat easily and few if any control measures have been put in place to mitigate the situation. It is possible to envisage circumstances in which the head teacher, in the interests of the safety and welfare of pupils and teachers, may need to consider closing all or part of the school for a period of time. It is preferable that such measures form part of a planned response to extreme weather conditions, rather than a knee-jerk emergency reaction to a situation which has been given little or no forethought.
Where the temperature in a workroom would otherwise be unreasonably high, all reasonable steps should be taken to achieve a comfortable temperature. Where a reasonably comfortable temperature cannot be achieved, local cooling should be provided. In extremely hot weather, fans and increased ventilation may be used instead of local cooling.
Full guidance on coping with excessive temperatures in schools is set out in the NEU health and safety briefing High Classroom Temperatures.
For more information, please download the full ‘Emergency procedures in schools’ guidance.