As the tragedy of the Noida factory fire unfolds, news reports suggest a pattern that I, as an Occupational Health & Safety (OHS) practitioner, find appalling.
The loss of lives, business were preventable tragedies if only the factory had followed OHS norms diligently. Lessons need to be learned, if such tragedies are to be prevented across sectors and factories.
As I sifted through the gory reportage, a few things stood out – the fire services officials said that the workers who died were on the third floor which had a biometric lock, thus trapping them.
As someone who carries out OHS audits on behalf of brands and advises companies on how to implement OHS norms, my first concern is to ensure a logical evacuation path in case of an emergency with nothing impeding the movement of people, who will be naturally in a panicky state of mind.
In fact, the first rule of any evacuation plan is how to contain panic and ensure an orderly escape.
The second rule is creating markings that enable people to follow them and reach safety.
The third rule, the evacuation plan has to be displayed boldly in safe areas so that when rescue workers arrive they immediately get to see the important things at a glance. For them important things are the location of doorways, water outlets, electrical points, fire extinguishers and the evacuation route.
While this is the principle, the practice tends to be different. Companies subordinate OHS plans to their operational plans, what this means is that machinery is placed ‘where there is space’ with no thought given to whether it will impede movement in case of an emergency.
Escape gates and doorways are arbitrarily sealed or locked, the path is changed by adding things like a store room in such a manner that safety route becomes constricted. While all this happens, the evacuation plan is never updated leading to faulty disaster planning.
Too often, companies and factory managers think that a floor and evacuation plan is one and the same thing, when they are not. Both are different, not just in meaning but actual purpose too.
The thing to understand is that an evacuation plan is like wearing a helmet; you shouldn’t wear it to prevent a challan but to protect yourself from fatal injuries in case of an accident.
Sadly, in the case of this Noida the management forgot that prevention is better than cure.
Experienced OHS Trainer & Practitioner
If you want to know more about how sound OHS planning can avert tragedies, you can contact me at prabhat @totalika.org