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How fire safety and office wellness are linked

Slowly but surely the responsibilities of health and safety practitioners is expanding. While mitigating the risk of physical accidents once dominated, now attention is moving to the prevention of long term diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Even in the most physically dangerous sectors such as oil exploration ‘lifestyle’ conditions now pose a clear and present danger. In developed nations, they account for the bulk of health spend and time off work and, by 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates they will account for almost three-quarters of all deaths worldwide.

They are different disciplines but the mitigation of accidents and prevention of long term illness often mix. For example, an increase in our average size and weight has resulted in slower evacuation times from the helicopters that serve North Sea drilling platforms. This in turn has resulted in a reduction in the number of passengers being allowed to fly at anyone time and a steep increase in costs.

A similar but more common dynamic exists with regard to the efficient evacuation of multi-storey office buildings in the case of fire or, perhaps just as worrying at the moment,  terrorist attack. As John Abrahams and Paul Stollard point out in their book, Fire from First Principles: A Design Guide to Building Fire Safety, it is vital that building occupants both know where the emergency stairs are and that they have the physical fitness required to use them.

At the same time, a lack of physical activity during the working day is a major risk factor for the development of long term conditions. Office staff who are inactive are significantly more likely to become obese and to suffer from vascular conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. Even some forms of stress, anxiety and depression are linked to a lack of exercise.  

Two birds, one stone

It is the link between fire safety and physical activity that is now causing many health and safety experts to reevaluate and promote the daily use of the stairs in multi-storey office buildings.

While once the office stairs were seen only as a means of escape in case of emergency, now all staff are being encouraged to use them in place of the lifts when ever they can. Not only does the change boost staff wellness generally but it makes people much more familiar with a building’s escape routes and more physically able to use them.

Such is the change in thinking that new global building certifications such as the Delos WELL Building Standard and the Fitwel healthy building certification require building operators to promote stair use in their properties as a condition of qualifying.

“Sedentary behaviour and a lack of physical activity are major risk factors for long term conditions”, says Paul Nuki, founding editor of NHS.uk and a co-founder of StepJockey.

“By encouraging office staff to use the stairs in place of the lifts and escalators property owners can dramatically lower this risk while at the same time boosting fire safety”.

How to boost stair climbing in your buildings?

It is relatively easy to boost stair use in almost all office buildings because fire safety regulations already mandate that stairs are well positioned and maintained.

The academic research - of which there is much - shows the single most important factor in efficiently promoting stair use is to make sure stair entrances are well signposted with effective health messaging.

The key is to place good strong and motivational signage at all the key point-of-decision points. Every lift call button should have a prompt next to it suggesting you take the the stairs. Likewise there should be a sign adjacent to every stair door to nudge people in.

The academic evidence base shows that well placed stair prompts increase stair use in most buildings by 50% and that the impact is maintained over time. Companies like StepJockey add a digital element to the experience, allowing users to interact with their stair prompts, launch team challenges and track their performance over time.