For generations, schools have routinely held fire drills. But ensuring a safe learning environment is more complicated than staging an occasional drill. Schools and universities should have an integrated school safety plan, and it must address how to manage site hazards in science labs, kitchens and other building areas.
Many older schools lack drench showers and eyewashes in critical areas, or have equipment that is outdated or fails to meet safety or accessibility standards. And few schools follow the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) requirements for testing equipment regularly.
For education institutions, the most vulnerable areas are chemistry and biology labs, art rooms and janitorial closets. If toxic fumes or spills occur, students and staff members could be at risk for serious chemical burns, eye injuries and respiratory irritation. And the cause could be something as simple as a worker inadvertently combining bleach and ammonia, and releasing irritating fumes, or students mixing or heating chemicals incorrectly.
A requirement, not an elective
It is essential for facilities with potential hazards to provide emergency equipment that protects against serious injuries or fatalities from chemical exposure. Drench showers and eyewash stations usually are the best solutions in these areas.
The ANSI Z358.1-2004 emergency equipment standard requires that such fixtures be installed within 10 seconds' reach of each hazard. Based on average walking speed, that translates to about 55 feet. At sites where strong acids or caustics are used, the equipment should be placed immediately adjacent to where the exposure could occur. The equipment should be on the same level as the potential hazard. Drench showers and eyewash stations must supply tepid water and be capable of a 15-minute flush.
Because emergency equipment is used infrequently, the area surrounding the equipment can become cluttered and often is used as a storage area. Obstructions can prevent students and staff — particularly those who are disabled — from getting to the equipment quickly. So be sure to remove any objects that are blocking the emergency station, and check that fixtures are in a well-lighted area and can be identified easily. Otherwise, many potential users may not even be aware that the emergency equipment exists.
Keeping fixtures within reach
The 2004 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines do not specifically mention emergency fixtures. Despite that, the ADA is the guideline used for emergency fixtures. General requirements such as reach heights, knee clearance and operation of controls for similar plumbed products can be extrapolated and used in the design of drench showers and eyewashes.
Based on the ADA's intent, eyewash units must be operable with one hand and should be activated using a maximum of 5 pounds of force. To meet this requirement, the unit may have a large push handle with a visible sign showing users how to turn on the valve, resulting in easy activation.
As with other types of fixtures, clearance height, reach height and wall clearance are key considerations for meeting the intent of the ADA guidelines. The maximum forward reach over an obstruction that is 20 inches long or less is a maximum of 58 inches above the floor. If the fixture is more than 20 inches deep, the maximum reach height is 44 inches. For an eyewash station, this means the activation handle can be no higher than these maximums, which depend on how far the fixture protrudes from the wall.
Knee clearance under the eyewash should be at least 27 inches. The standard clearance also would apply to eyewashes mounted to countertops in laboratories. Clear floor space also is an issue. If someone is expected to turn a wheelchair in front of a fixture, there should be at least 32 inches of clear space. The figures are based on adult users; there are also special children's provisions in the ADA.
Finding the right solution
A variety of emergency equipment can meet ANSI and other requirements, including combined shower and eyewash or facewash configurations. Many products are designed specifically for education facilities.
A new concept for schools — and among universities in particular, where appearance and aesthetics can be more of a priority — are sleek, in-wall stainless-steel eyewash and drench shower units that stow away when not in use. Many manufacturers offer a combination drench shower and eyewash station that is recessed-mounted; the design keeps walkways and halls clear when it is not in use.
These barrier-free recessed fixtures are accessible to those with physical disabilities. Instead of a plumbing pipe protruding from the wall and a fixture taking up floor space, all mechanicals are housed inside the wall, behind the flush-mounted front panel.
With recessed units, the eyewash station can be concealed behind a swing-down cabinet door. The valve is activated as soon as the door is opened. During use, water is collected inside the door and funneled to a drain in the back of the unit. When the door is closed, any remaining water goes down the drain in the wall.
On models with a drench shower, flush-mounted or standard showerheads usually are available. Drench showers can be activated by pressing down the shower handle on the front of the unit. A barrier-free product should require no twisting, tight grasping or turning to activate the shower.
If a potential hazard primarily will affect the eyes, swing-down eyewash units are an option. These units can be mounted to sinks or countertops and take up little space. Another option is a barrier-free, wall-mounted eyewash fixture.
When specifying emergency drench showers and eyewashes, look for those that comply with the ANSI Z358.1-2004 standard. It means the fixtures have been third-party certified to the ANSI standard, and it ensures they meet minimum water flow, spray pattern and other requirements.
Two other considerations are serviceability and privacy. Models with wide access panels in the front can be maintained easily. Many schools install privacy curtains around drench showers so users don't feel uncomfortable disrobing in front of classmates.
Drench showers, like their eyewash counterparts, are offered in barrier-free models. Specifications for barrier-free units include proper placement of showerheads and extended pull rods. Users in wheelchairs should be able to reach a pull rod that is no more than 48 inches high. To provide adequate flushing, showerheads must be no more than 96 inches from the floor.
When selecting an emergency fixture, look for features that make the units easier to use. Activation should be simple. Drench showers with a triangular-shaped pull rod, for example, allow users to put an arm through the space to activate. This may be critical if a user's hand is burned in a chemical accident and unable to grasp a cord.
For schools and universities, vandalism is common. Typically, emergency valves are designed to remain open until the lever is lifted and the user has completed a 15-minute flush. To prevent fixtures from being turned on by vandals and left running, ANSI, in its appendix, states an exception to its “stay-open valve” rule. If their enforcing authority concludes it is not a serious threat to do so, schools may use self-closing valves.
Another way to deter vandalism is by installing an alarm.
Once a fixture has been delivered, be sure to have available a copy of the ANSI Z358.1-2004 standard, plus all installation and instruction manuals.
To ensure that your drench showers and eyewash units will work correctly, follow ANSI guidelines for weekly and annual testing. Take these testing needs into account during installation. Many schools do not have floor drains installed for drench showers. This limits the ability to test the shower. In addition, if a shower is used without the necessary floor drains, significant water damage could occur.
And remember: Emergency valves, eyewash stations and drench showers are built to meet requirements; any modification of the equipment voids the warranty. Worse, it could render the equipment inoperable and subject a school to fines and sanctions.
Finally, review the safety plan regularly. Even though these issues may not be critical during a routine day, paying attention to important details about the safety equipment ultimately will result in a safer learning environment.
Geissler is a product manager for emergency fixtures at Bradley Corporation, Menomonee Falls, Wis., a manufacturer of plumbing fixtures, washroom accessories, partitions, emergency fixtures and lockers.
Number of seconds it should take to reach emergency equipment from a hazard, according to the ANSI Z358.1-2004 standard. Based on average walking speed, that translates to about 55 feet.