Getting Out Safely – A Brief Guide To Emergency Evacuation

All workplaces must be provided with a means of detecting and giving warning in case of fire, adequate means of escape and means of fighting fire. The nature, complexity and extent of these will depend on the size of the premises, the number of people who normally work there, the nature of the work processes and substances stored and used etc. Specific requirements relating to fire detection and warning systems, means of escape and means of fighting fire should be determined by risk assessment.

Provision and maintenance of emergency routes and exits

Generally, other than where the travel distances to a fire exit are short, an alternative means of escape should be provided from all parts of a workplace.

  • Routes which provide means of escape in one direction only, e.g. from a dead-end or a mezzanine, should be avoided as they may lead people towards the fire in order to escape.
  • Each escape route should be independent of any other and arranged so that people can move away from a fire in order to escape.
  • Emergency routes and exits must lead as directly as possible to a place of safety, should be identified by signs and must be kept clear at all times.
  • The number, distribution and dimensions of emergency routes and exits must be adequate for the workplace, its equipment and the maximum number of persons present at any one time.
  • Emergency doors should ideally open in the direction of escape.
  • Sliding or revolving doors must not be used for exits specifically intended as emergency exits.
  • Emergency doors must not be locked or fastened in such a way that they cannot be easily and immediately opened by any person who may need to use them in an emergency.
  • Emergency routes and exits requiring illumination must be provided with emergency lighting of adequate intensity in case of failure of their normal lighting.
  • Stairways, whether internal or external, should be provided with protection to prevent people falling.

Items which present a fire hazard or which could cause an obstruction should not be located in corridors or stairways intended for use as a means of escape. In particular, the following items should not be located in protected routes, or in a corridor or stairwell serving as a sole means of escape:

  • Portable heaters
  • Heaters incorporating naked flames or radiant bars
  • Fixed heaters using a gas supply cylinder, where the cylinder is within the escape route
  • Oil-fuelled heaters or boilers
  • Cooking appliances
  • Upholstered furniture
  • Coat racks
  • Temporarily stored items
  • Lighting using naked flames
  • Gas boilers, pipes, meters or other fittings (except those permitted in the standards supporting the building regulations and installed in accordance with the Gas Safety Regulations)
  • Gaming or vending machines
  • Electrical equipment such as photocopiers
  • Any items which restrict the width of the escape route.

Where people have to pass through doors in order to escape from the workplace, they should open in the direction of travel where:

  • More than 50 people may use the door
  • The door is at or near the foot of a stairwell
  • The door leads from a high fire risk area
  • The door is on an exit route from a building used for public assembly.

Fire doors should be capable of being easily and immediately opened.

Where it is necessary to secure outward opening doors while the building is occupied, they should be fitted with a panic latch, a panic bolt or a push pad.

Ideally fire exit doors should never be locked when the premises are occupied. However, where a door is locked by any security device it should be the only fastening on the door and staff must be instructed in its use. A suitable sign or notice should be displayed clearly showing the method of operation. If necessary, a suitable tool for easy operation should be provided.

Emergency Lighting

Escape routes, including external routes, must be provided with sufficient lighting for people to clearly see their way out to safety. Typical areas requiring emergency escape lighting are those without natural light or those occupied at night.

Having assessed the need for emergency lighting, employers must ensure that the system works not only on the complete failure of normal lighting but also in case of localised failure presenting a hazard.

Emergency lighting should:

  • Indicate the escape routes clearly
  • Provide illumination along escape routes to allow safe movement towards the final exits
  • Ensure any fire alarm call points and fire-fighting equipment can be easily located.

Emergency lighting units should be sited to cover specific areas e.g.:

  • Intersections of corridors
  • At each exit door
  • Near each staircase ensuring direct light to each flight
  • Close to a change in floor level
  • Outside each final exit
  • Within lift cars
  • Close to fire-fighting equipment
  • Near each fire alarm call point.

The units should be positioned as low as possible but at least 2 metres above floor level. Installation should be by a competent person in accordance with British and/or European standards.

Disabled Persons

The employer should make adequate provision for people with disabilities who may be present in the premises. Both staff and visitors should be considered. This may include the provision of safe havens within fire protection areas. This category of persons and their assistants, where necessary, need to be trained and instructed in the arrangements for their safety during a fire.

The presence of disabled persons must be specifically covered by the fire risk assessment. In addition a personal emergency evacuation plan (PEEP) should be carried out for disabled employees which looks more closely at their specific needs and requirements should an emergency evacuation take place. Consideration should be given to providing a ‘buddy’ who will assist the person out of the building in an evacuation.


In a real-life evacuation with smoke and panicking colleagues, people’s natural instincts can be to flee the threat and not follow procedures as they might have done during a fire drill.

Once everybody is out of the building how do you make sure that everybody is out? Some organisations favour a roll-call where a list or register of persons on site is checked against who is actually present at the emergency assembly point.

However roll-calls have an intrinsic weakness – they require an accurate list of who is on site. Inaccuracies with the list can be caused by:

  • Lack of control over visitors or contractors
  • Staff leaving the premises but not ‘signing out’ or making it known to their colleagues
  • Frequent turnaround of the staff on site e.g. hot-desking employees

There exist a number of sophisticated technological control systems, normally including a swipe card, from which a list can be generated. While these systems are excellent if used correctly, it does rely on human co-operation with the system. For instance employees commonly tend to ‘piggy-back’ when entering the building – the first person at the door swipes the card then the following persons do not swipe in as the door is already open. Also contractors and visitors must be given a swipe card or a written register of their entry/exit of the building maintained. Issues such as these mean that there is a strong policy and supervision element that must be maintained for the system to be effective in a real emergency.

Disclaimer: The information provided through Legislation Watch is for general guidance only and is not legal advice. Legislation Watch is not a substitute for Health and Safety consultancy. You should seek independent advice about any legal matter.

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