Systematizing Safety in Higher Education

On the surface, a college campus looks like a picture of tranquility. Students chat as they walk to their classes. The grounds are green and well manicured, the buildings stately. What could be a safer environment?

But the sharp eyes of a safety professional might see an entirely different picture: inadequate or blocked fire exits, disabled fire alarms, broken sidewalks, missing egress lighting, slippery wet floors without warning signs, improper machine guarding, lack of personal protective equipment in shops — the potential list of hazards is almost endless. Without an ongoing, systematic inspection program carried out by experienced professionals, serious safety deficiencies can develop and may go undetected until it’s too late.

A college or university is like a small city — or a collection of small cities — with libraries, theaters, classrooms, offices, residences, swimming pools, water systems, restaurants, laboratories, and sometimes even daycare centers. Managing life, health, and fire safety is a crucial job that takes continuing attention.

The bigger the system, the greater the challenges. Even a single campus will have a number of buildings of different ages and in different conditions. A statewide university, community college system, or a private institution with multiple campuses will have an even more diverse physical plant and a wider array of academic programs and students. Older buildings are challenging because they may be partially exempt from current building codes. Since it’s not always possible to bring them completely up to code, sensible compromises must be made.

Funding can be a problem. When money is tight, the maintenance budget may be the first item to get chopped.

Authority is more dispersed in a college or university than in a corporation. Ordering staff and faculty to cooperate doesn’t work. Additionally, maintenance workers are often unionized, and unions enforce staffing levels and work rules zealously. Safety professionals must win everyone’s cooperation and provide education about the importance of safety.

Educational institutions must answer to a welter of regulatory agencies, laws, and regulations, including local fire departments and boards of health, the Environmental Protection Agency, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, National Fire Protection Association, Americans With Disabilities Act, and various state laws and agencies. When overlapping codes conflict, someone must determine which one takes precedence.

A Systematic Approach

Any safety program must both eliminate hazards to reduce the possibility of fires and accidents and ensure that buildings can be evacuated safely in case of a fire, chemical spill, or other disaster. To do this, the program must not only identify the“symptoms” (such as an inadequate alarm system or blocked stairwell) but also determine the underlying issues (such as inadequate maintenance or poor design) that cause the symptoms. If you spend all your time treating the symptoms without curing the“disease,” the symptoms will just keep reappearing. College safety managers and senior officials need hard, documentary evidence about safety deficits in an easily accessible form. To get that evidence, qualified safety professionals should inspect every building and facility on campus from top to bottom at least once a year. When inspectors uncover a critical hazard — a serious threat to life or safety — they should alert college authorities so they can take immediate, decisive action.

While safety inspectors have traditionally written narrative reports, putting reports in a spreadsheet format (such as Excel) lets everyone readily identify trends and track progress. The spreadsheet can be broken down into major categories such as Maintenance/Repairs, Life Safety, Fire Protection, Security, Electrical Hazard, Special Hazards, Housekeeping, and Trip/Slip/Fall hazards. Each of these categories can contain rows for specific problems, such as “defective roof covering,” “inadequate egress facility,” “obstructed fire appliance/valve outlet,” “GFCI protection,” or “improper/defective temporary wiring,” followed by the type of code violation or reference standard.

Safety inspectors should be meticulous, well organized, and have the required experience, mechanical background, and education. Equally important, they need good people skills to reassure the frontline maintenance and operational staff that they are there to educate and help them, not to “write them up.”

Typical Challenges

Most safety deficiencies result from inadequate design, equipment, or maintenance. Problems can occur in classrooms, residence halls, offices, athletic centers, laboratories, mechanical rooms, theaters, and other areas. Depending on the facility, inspectors may find inadequate exits, machine-guarding problems, obsolete fire alarm systems, lack of personal protective equipment in laboratories, and poorly maintained or unserviceable fire-suppression systems. Fire doors may be blocked or chocked open in violation of code.

Building engineers responsible for heating, cooling, and electrical are focused on keeping their buildings going and may not know proper safety procedures. Mechanical rooms can be hazardous if flammable materials are stored too close to boilers and electrical panels. This puts the facility in double jeopardy: a mechanical-room fire not only produces the usual fire and smoke damage, but will also shut down the building’s vital systems. Additionally, mechanical rooms are usually cramped, and maintenance staff may need confined-space training to avoid increased risk of injury and entrapment.

Many campuses have special facilities such as daycare centers, which can become cluttered with items like bookshelves, chairs, terrariums, and so on. If these items were stored in stairwells or other exits, it would make it very difficult to evacuate panic-stricken children.

Theaters, too, pose special hazards. Are the curtains fireproof? Can the audience escape a fire without panicking and jamming the exits? Since performing-arts faculty focus on the aesthetics of the performance, they usually don’t think about fire safety. Safety professionals should hold faculty conferences to point out the safety issues and the precautions that must be taken. When given the right information and explanations, academics are very willing to implement safety procedures.

Athletic centers can present many safety problems. Swimming pools, for example, are susceptible to deterioration because of chemicals and moisture; cracks in concrete might be overlooked by anyone other than a safety professional. However, if the supports for a diving board were to fail, serious injury could result.

A good safety professional must be both an optimist and a pessimist. The optimist knows that hazards can be eliminated systemically and the number of accidents reduced. The pessimist assumes that, despite his or her best efforts, there will be a fire one day. Smoke detectors, sprinklers, and fire alarms must be maintained and tested regularly to ensure they’ll perform when needed. Well-maintained water and other types of fire-suppression systems will extinguish fires, preventing death, injuries, and property damage. But even the best systems take time to work, so safety professionals must make sure that exits are ample, unobstructed, and well lit so that students and staff can get out of a burning classroom or residence hall promptly and safely.

Nationally there are about 1,800 residence hall fires per year, with about one-third caused by arson, followed by cooking and smoking. Residential fire safety is obviously crucial and can be especially challenging because some young people act irresponsibly, especially when alcohol is involved. Since students often disable fire alarms so they can cook or smoke in their rooms, regular inspection is crucial.

Building Support for Safety

Everyone must be on board to make the safety program work, from senior officials down to the custodians. Holding an annual safety kickoff meeting with an appropriate executive, such as the campus vice president of administration or finance, is an excellent way to build support. The meeting should include the safety consultants and the campus environmental health-and-safety officer, the director of buildings and grounds, and representatives of the maintenance staff. This lets the staff know that safety is a top priority.

It may be advantageous to retain an independent consultant to conduct the safety inspections. An outsider without a vested interest or an axe to grind is credible, insulated from campus politics, and can concentrate exclusively on doing the job at hand.

Whether an insider or outsider, the safety inspector will encounter employees whose natural reaction is to “circle the wagons” and protect their turf. They’re afraid they’ll be criticized or made to do their jobs differently. But without the help of the maintenance staff, the program won’t go anywhere. They’re the ones who control access to the infrastructure. If you can win their confidence and get them to talk freely, you’ll receive a wealth of information.

Winning cooperation doesn’t happen overnight, but it can be accomplished. Safety inspectors must treat custodians and engineers as equals and be respectful of their time. It’s a challenging job. The inspectors will encounter people with very different personalities, from helpful to unconcerned. They must convince the frontline staff that they are there for a good reason. The pros can’t simply report deficiencies; they must also explain why they do what they do.

One inspector puts in this way: “We learn from each other. I start out as an inspector and become a consultant. I can’t tell the staff how to do their jobs, but I can give them ideas, and as I go around, I get more and more questions. You really do have to gain their confidence. I need them more than they need me, but by the time we’re finished, they really need me. It’s reciprocal, and there’s not a day that I don’t learn something new.”

After the campus safety inspection has been completed there should be a wrap-up meeting with the campus vice president of facilities or administration. The safety inspectors and the college safety officer can present the detailed reports, discuss findings, set target dates for resolution, and request funding. This process — initial meeting, inspections, and closing meeting — should be repeated every year. This ensures a steady flow of information to the top and keeps the momentum going.

Keeping safety at the forefront demands a systematic approach because safety isn’t visible. Safety often becomes an issue only after a disaster that could have been prevented. With a program of annual inspections and meetings, safety becomes institutionalized; part of the college’s culture. When that happens, problems will be discovered and repairs will be made before accidents occur. The benefits include improved employee morale, fewer losses, and lower costs.

Harry Nolan, Ph.D., is a loss-control engineer with E.G. Bowman Company, Inc., New York, which provides loss control, insurance and safety-engineering services to colleges and universities as well as major corporations. He is responsible for coordinating loss-control and safety services for the firm’s clients. Nolan can be reached at [email protected] or 212/425-8150.