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HR Departments: How Safe Are Your Employees?

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People respond to voice warnings, not to standard fire alarms, and evacuations are speedier when timely information is communicated, according to a study released in March 2019 by Siemens Building Technologies.

It has been noted many times, in multiple studies, that building occupants often ignore or are slow to respond to standard fire alarm sounders. There is even a tendency for people to continue with their activities, oblivious to potential danger.

Nuisance alarms or false alarms have lulled us into a situation where blaring sounds or klaxons are often casually dismissed as non-emergency or non-life threatening.

Bystander Apathy

The safety of employees is of utmost concern, no matter the size of the company. HR professionals must be proactive in understanding and communicating the concept of bystander apathy*, a condition where people ignore an emergency when they believe someone else will take responsibility. Bystander apathy can affect the pre-movement phase of an escape, prolonging the time it takes before people react to an audible alarm.

According to Steve Loughney of Siemens Building Technologies, “There are multiple explanations about why we have a natural tendency to dismiss alarms and any delay could prove critical or at worst, catastrophic. People respond to others around them and a collective position often emerges during emergencies i.e. if one person moves, there is a likelihood that others will follow with the reverse also true.”

This lack of urgency was echoed in studies by the International Rescue Committee when it found that less than 25% of occupants interpreted the sound of the fire alarm as a potential sign of a real emergency during mid-rise residential evacuation trials.

Fire Alarms Alone Are Not Sufficient

More comprehensive systems for detection, alarming, evacuation and danger management are required as buildings become increasingly more complex. Visual and acoustic alarming protects the hearing-impaired or employees working in noisy environments.

Different zones of a building may, in different scenarios, require separate instructions to ensure a safe exit. The serious issue here is that failing to respond quickly enough to danger (rather than responding too urgently) is the main cause of death in hazards such as fires.

Professor John Drury, expert on human behavior in emergencies at the University of Sussex in the UK: “While there is often a tendency to underestimate risk in potential emergencies, certain features of the signal exacerbate this. Unfortunately, the judgment people make that a bell or siren is a test or a malfunction is often correct. These forms of alarm are simply unreliable as signals. The evidence is that these kinds of signals are relatively ineffective at both getting people to recognize danger and beginning to evacuate.”

The Role of Trusted People

If a bell or siren signal prompts employees to look at how others respond before responding themselves, they are most likely looking for someone whose judgment they trust, such as others who might have better knowledge of the venue than themselves, but this leads to serious delays in egress when others also under-estimate risk and don’t trust the signal.

Anne Templeton, lecturer in social psychology University of Edinburgh, states: “Previous research on crowd behavior in emergencies suggests that physical crowds can quickly become psychologically unified and collectively self-organize safe behavior in emergencies, often acting as first responders in the absence of emergency services”.

Trust and Communication Are Key

The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction gives three recommendations for facilitating safe crowd behavior in emergencies:

  • First, accommodate the public wish to offer help, which could build unity and trust.
  • Second, give the crowd members information about how to act.
  • Third, build trust by increasing the perceived legitimacy of the professional first responders to increase the chance of the public sharing social identity with them to internalize the guidance provided to them.

Templeton says, “Combined, these findings show that inter-group barriers between the crowd and safety professionals could be decreased by enhancing existing communication guidance to improve their perceived legitimacy, focusing on providing information to the crowd and working with it and not against it.”

* https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/basics/bystander-effect

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March 2019

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