Safety engineers urge colleges to retrofit

DES PLAINES, ILL. In light of recent accidents occurring in campus facilities, the American Society of Safety Engineers is recommending that all university facilities, including classrooms, dormitories, gyms, and fraternity and sorority houses be evaluated for effective safety features and systems. Many campus buildings are extremely old and their safety features need to be reviewed in order to protect

DES PLAINES, ILL. — In light of recent accidents occurring in campus facilities, the American Society of Safety Engineers is recommending that all university facilities, including classrooms, dormitories, gyms, and fraternity and sorority houses be evaluated for effective safety features and systems.

“Many campus buildings are extremely old and their safety features need to be reviewed in order to protect students, faculty and employees,” said ASSE President Mark Hansen.

For instance, Hansen noted, a safety survey by an ASSE member of a 1950s-era dormitory at a large state university found several significant safety deficiencies. The building’s fire alarm system dated back 50 years to the time of original construction and consisted of manual pull stations and alarm bells at the exit doors. The three-story brick and concrete structure included public foyers, common recreational rooms and lounges, plus the building manager’s office on the first floor, with sleeping rooms on the second and third floors. Fire protection features included portable fire extinguishers in the corridors and single station smoke detectors in each sleeping room.

The ASSE member identified several problems such as the stairwell exit doors propped open with doorstops; missing fire extinguishers; broken door closers on sleeping room doors; burned-out lamps in exit signs; storage in the corridor partially blocking an exit door; and the use of candles in bedrooms.

Also found to be a problem was the use of the corridor as a return air space for the HVAC system; inadequate audibility levels for the fire alarm system; and the lack of visible strobe fire alarm devices.

As a result, it was recommended that the common maintenance and administrative problems be immediately corrected. It was also found that using the corridor as a return air space was a major problem because the smoke from a fire otherwise confined to a bedroom could rapidly spread into the corridor through the open fixed louvers, making it impassable in a short period of time.

To correct this it was suggested that:

  • Return air ducts be installed and grilles replaced with solid material; or
  • Fire sprinklers be installed throughout the building; or
  • Smoke detectors be installed in the corridors in conjunction with self-closing, cross-corridor doors arranged to automatically shut down the HVAC fans and release the cross-corridor doors in event of the detection of smoke.

The university moved quickly to remedy the situation. Due to the difficulty and lack of ceiling space to install ductwork and the large investment needed for sprinklers in a building slated for demolition within a decade, the smoke detector and cross-corridor door option proved to be the most viable.

The obsolete fire alarm system was replaced with the installation of horn/strobe notification devices throughout the building.

“Facility safety is very complex,” Hansen said. “One must have excellent knowledge of all state and federal safety regulations, building and fire codes, insurance requirements, security requirements, and Environmental Protection Agency requirements.

“Schools should rely on an occupational safety professional when addressing these issues. There are several resources one can turn to identify qualified safety professionals, including the ASSE.”

Founded in 1911, the nonprofit ASSE is dedicated to protecting people, property and the environment. Its 30,000 members manage, supervise, research and consult on safety, health, transportation and environmental issues in all industries, government and education.

For more information and resources, visit ASSE Web site at www.asse.org.