Health and Safety in Practice: The University

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The university’s largest building is the Humanities Block, which is nine storeys high and about forty metres long. With some twenty-thirty lecture theatres, seminar rooms and offices on each floor, as well as cafes and libraries, it can accommodate – I would imagine – between 2,500 and 3,500 students, lecturers and other employees at any time. Most of the time, all rooms are taken meaning that the building is always full. There are two entrances from outside either side of the building, while the Humanities Block can be accessed through the Central Building as there are walkways connecting the entire main campus. The Humanities Block has only one central staircase to move up and down, and four lifts, although only two are accessible to students and are always overcrowded between classes. The building features fire escapes, including one emergency staircase, but none of the exits nor the emergency staircase function. The above photograph shows students smoking outside one exit which is locked shut in a system of double doors. The first door from inside the building is also locked, with the writing on the window stating ‘No Exit’, while on the door to the right it states ‘Emergency Exit’ and below ‘The Key is With the Caretaker’. No student or staff member could identify where the caretaker might be.

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On each floor of the Humanities Block towards the end of the longer side of the corridor is a door like this one. The red writing states ‘Emergency Exit’ and the green ‘Exit’. On each floor, however, the door is locked with a key. It could be quite easy to rip the door open, were there to be a fire, although it is unlikely that such a manoeuvre would save many lives because it would lead to this exit onto the street.

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The first problem, evident here, is that this car is blocking any free exit from the building, as well as access by emergency vehicles. The path to the door is also blocked by snow, so it could be difficult to open. However, the main problem is thus:Image

The fire exit is padlocked shut, and there is no indicator that the caretaker has the key. Furthermore:

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the fire exit is filled with junk and rubbish, meaning that any students and staff who escaped down the marked fire exit would most probably find themselves trapped in the doorway, unable to access the exit which is locked shut.

There is no evidence of fire safety equipment on any of the eight floors. There are several cupboards on the walls of each floor marked with fire safety equipment, however they appear to be solely taps or pumps enabling firemen and firewomen to connect their hoses – if they can get into the building given the cars blocking the entrance – to a water supply.

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Despite having classes on Occupational Health and Safety, it seems that students – like staff – in this block have no way of knowing what the fire safety procedure is, likewise they have no way of protecting themselves, since there are no fire extinguishers, sprinklers or alarms to set off in the entire building, as far as I could see. There is, however, a notice – but only on the fourth floor – indicating what should be done.

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The notice, apart from being situated so high as to be illegible, is partly damaged and is also ten years old, coming from 2004, predating even the Orange Revolution. Meanwhile, the lift instructions are written solely in Russian – a fact that is quite probably anti-constitutional – and date from the USSR.

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These instructions, apart from being rusted, do not seem to give an indication of the procedure for using the lift in a fire.

It might be all bad news if, like half the university, you are based in the Humanities Block – but head to the Central Building and you’ll seen an improvement in fire safety. There is a transitional zone, however, located on the bridge between buildings, where some of the largest lecture theatres are located:

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Here there are instructions on what number to call in case of fire, and a suggestion of a fire extinguisher, absent from the Humanities Block. However, you will need to look for the elusive caretaker again in this transitional zone:

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If you open the cupboard, you will find this notice, telling you that the fire hose is with the caretaker at the porter’s office. If you go there, however:

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The caretaker is at a different porter’s office. But at least you can finally help yourself to a fire extinguisher. It is merely 150 metres back to the Humanities Block and then a brisk climb to whatever floor happens to be on fire. There are also buckets and spades which might help.

But if you carry on deeper into the Central Building, into the Physics Department, then there is an abundance of fire safety equipment – quite sensible, really, given the type of experiments taking place.

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Here, in a steel box that itself seems to have been fire damaged, there is a powder fire extinguisher and a hose. There are at least four such boxes, all fully-equipped, on a corridor barely one third of the length of one of the floors in the Humanities Block. It might also help that this department is adjacent to the administrative centre of the university, thus fire safety equipment will obviously be of a superior standard. However, should the administration or the Physics department, or indeed the equally well-protected sports department, need to flee, they will find their emergency exits blocked, too, albeit blocked to a higher standard.

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This ground-level fire exit is shuttered, meaning that all staff and students caught in an emergency would need to flee through one major exit door, or try to escape through the corridors and bridges into other buildings.

This photo essay reveals the insufficient fire protection for staff and students at the university. In combination, however, with the information gained from attending the lecture on Occupational Health and Safety in the Workplace, it becomes evident that there is a complete systematic failure which is indicative of a broader problem within the education system, as students are loaded with information from lecturers which bears little relevance to reality. According to today’s lecture, each institution is responsible for monitoring health and safety, and can be subject to inspections – as is typical in any sphere in today’s Ukraine – from numerous state bodies. However, these bodies seem best equipped to deal with the aftermath of a disaster rather than preventing one. Indeed, one of the main organisations responsible for workplace health and safety is the Trade Union, whose office – happily – sits on one of the well-protected corridors, rather than in the death trap Humanities Block. Beyond offering flowers on birthdays and at funerals, the Trade Union at the university seems powerless – even if in the Euromaydan protests trade unions from other spheres are proving active and supportive. Today’s lecture also outlined very clearly the causes of accidents, including “unsatisfactory workplace conditions” and “neglect” by individuals for supervising these conditions, but not only did the lecturer fail to apply this to the surrounding reality at this university, but the class was structured in such a way as to offer no opportunity to make such a point.

Further, the atmosphere of fear and intimidation the generally prevails in student-lecturer relations, particularly in areas outside the students’ core subjects, means that students are unlikely to raise any queries. At the moment, from speaking to some students, it seems that the Euromaydan protests (revolution) are framed as a worthier cause, meaning that any such everyday protests seem irrelevant. However, prior to the protests there was also little indication of a thrust towards questioning any failings by authorities within the university. The wait for a top-down revolution remains, with many students blind to the fact that Euromaydan began as a grassroots, civic rebellion against careless, neglectful authorities.

Staff, too, largely wait idly for change or deny it could ever come, regardless of abuses of their terms of employment. Contracts state that the university is obliged to provide all necessary conditions for safe and fruitful employment. Starting at a base and basic level, there is no toilet paper in any toilet I have encountered at the university.

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When I raised this point at a staff meeting in another department to the one I am now employed in, I was told that “that’s what we have the part-time students’ exams for”. Humour helps, but even with revolution or an urge towards an imagined “Europe”, everyday conditions will be a long time in changing.

One thought on “Health and Safety in Practice: The University

  1. Pingback: Sunday in the Park with Taras: On Shevchenko’s 200th birthday. | Revolution, lecturing and life in Ukraine

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