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Environmental safety: The keystone in program quality

Editor’s note:
This is the first of two articles on safety guidelines. The second article will address accident prevention and response. Refer to articles on food and kitchen safety in the Spring 1998 and Summer 2000 issues of .

Safety concerns impact every aspect of program planning and maintenance. Whether you operate from a reconditioned warehouse, a converted house, a custom-built school, or your family’s home, your primary obligation is to protect the safety of the children in your care. Diverse settings, program models, and the ages of the children enrolled demand specific evaluation and careful monitoring to ensure the environment supports and enhances intellectual, social, emotional, and physical development.
Basic considerations like the amount of usable floor space, classroom furniture arrangements, heating and cooling systems, lighting, access to bathrooms and the playground, and storage have impact on both children’s safety and behavior. Additionally, accommodating special equipment for children with disabilities, eliminating exposure to toxic substances, maintaining and repairing equipment, and developing program-specific plans for handling emergencies demand your attention.
Through all aspects of early care and education, practicing four basic principles help ensure the safety of children and adults: plan ahead, enforce policies, supervise actively, and teach safety first.

Program-wide considerations
Some safety issues go beyond particular classrooms and affect the entire program. The well-being of both children and teachers depend on strictly—and faithfully—followed policies on fire, transportation, gun, and pet safety.

Fire safety
Having to respond to a fire is a teacher’s nightmare. But careful fire prevention habits, well-defined emergency response procedures, and good mechanical tools can help keep the nightmare at bay.
Carelessness and ignorance are too often at the root of fires. Remove these common hazards:
Cube taps that overload electrical outlets and wiring systems
Furnishings, draperies, curtains, and carpet that aren’t fire-resistant
Appliances with frayed, brittle electrical cords
Frayed, brittle extension cords
Bulbs in light fixtures that exceed the fixture’s wattage limit
Piles of combustible papers, trash, and rags
Burning candles, matches, lighters, and lighter fluid
Loose clothing and dangling dish rags and pot holders in the kitchen
Heat-generating appliances (electric skillets, lamps, and irons, for example) that aren’t immediately turned off after use.
Develop emergency response procedures carefully. You should have an evacuation plan with a map, a plan for conducting fire and other emergency drills, and a system for parent notification. Start by drawing a floor plan of your facility. Identify two accessible exits from the building—if a door is blocked, it’s not accessible in an emergency. Mark the location of interior rooms and doors, windows, fire extinguishers, exit doors, and the route to a safe gathering space outside the building. Then determine and mark two exits from each space children use. (If you want to use a window as an exit, all of the children and adults in the space must be able to move through the window, get to the ground, and away from the building safely).
Carefully consider your designated safe place. If you plan to use one space for all emergencies—fire, weather, and gas leak, for example—plan ahead with the owner of that property. Many programs designate two different safe places: one for quick evacuation (get everyone out of the building and count heads) and one for relocation (a place to wait for parents or for the tornado to pass).
Share copies of the evacuation map with all of the adults in the building, including the kitchen and custodial workers. Post maps in every classroom, the kitchen, near exit doors, and in the office area. Include a review of the evacuation plan in new staff orientation and in regular in-service meetings.
Plan and execute regular fire and emergency drills. In your planning, designate one adult to call for emergency assistance after the children are safe. Devise a system for making sure you have emergency care information for each child including appropriate contact numbers, medical release forms, and the day’s attendance sheet. Many programs make copies of emergency information (or create a separate form with space for a parent’s signature) on cards that are clipped next to the classroom door with the day’s attendance sheet. In an emergency the teacher can easily grab the information while leaving the room. Practice fire drills at least once a month at different times of the day including nap time. Practice hazardous weather and other emergency drills at least twice a year. Document your drills with notes indicating the date, time, and amount of time it took to evacuate. Endeavor to safely evacuate the building in less than three minutes. Remember, your first job is to get everyone to safety.
Smoke detectors have made a serious dent in the incidence of destructive fires. But in order to do the job of alerting you to smoke, you need to place and maintain the device appropriately. Hang a detector in each room, the hall, and the kitchen of your facility. Make sure you locate the smoke detector out of drafty areas including near air-conditioning and heating registers.
Check battery-operated smoke detectors monthly. A UL-marked smoke detector has a built-in testing button. Routinely replace batteries twice a year. Fire departments recommend that you change batteries on the days the clock moves from daylight saving to standard time and back again. If you hear a periodic beep from the detector, replace that battery immediately.
Emergency lighting can have an impact on how quickly you can evacuate a building in an emergency. Some programs have emergency lighting systems and others rely on flashlights with batteries. If you use flashlights, make sure adults know where to find them quickly and that the batteries have enough charge to do the job.
A fire-extinguishing system (sprinklers) is desirable but at least one hand-held fire extinguisher is a must. Buy an extinguisher labeled 3A-40BC; the dry chemical will be effective on all types of fire, including grease. Mount the extinguisher in a universally accessible area—the main hall, for example—according to the manufacturer’s recommendation but no higher than 5 feet from the floor. Buy a second fire extinguisher for the kitchen as an additional precaution. Check the charge level on the extinguisher monthly and have it professionally checked at least once a year or after any use. Some extinguishers can be recharged but some must be replaced after use. Review operation procedures with all adults in the program; make sure you know how to use the extinguisher before a fire starts.

Transportation safety
Transportation safety applies not only to your program but to the families who come to you every day, transporting their children to your door. Share your safety procedures with families—and be a model of care and caution. When you and families are consistent in your transportation procedures, children quickly learn behavioral limits that keep everyone safe.
Evaluate the driving patterns at your program. Does everyone enter from the same direction or is it a free-for-all of pulling in and backing out? Do teachers and staff have a parking area that is distinct, leaving easy access for parents? Do you clench your teeth every time you watch a child—with or without parents—dash across a street?
Work with staff to establish functional and safe routines for automobiles—both for families and program drivers.
In the parking lot. If possible designate the driveway as one-way with a separate entrance and exit. When all cars move in the same direction, fewer accidents happen. If street parking is necessary, establish the same one-way action that ensures that children exit and enter the car along the curb rather than in the street. Do not allow children to cross streets without an adult.
Devise a system for keeping everyone safe when exiting or entering a vehicle. For example, as children wait to climb in and buckle up, have them wait with one hand on the car at all times. This beats repeatedly asking children to “stay close” and “come here.”
On the road. Follow regulatory standards regarding seat belts, infant safety seats, and booster seats appropriate to a child’s age, height, and weight. Safety restraints must be used by all adults and children before starting a vehicle and whenever the vehicle is in motion. Make sure the restraints meet federal standards set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and are properly secured in the vehicle.
Always try to have at least two adults in each vehicle—one driver and one in a back seat. Moving through traffic is an especially hard transition time. Bring along some pocket games and song ideas to help make children happy passengers.
Build a foolproof system for accounting for all of the children all of the time. Avoid trips until you know every child by name and face. Count heads as frequently in the car as you do on the playground. Use a written list to make sure everyone get into and out of the vehicle. Encourage children to be responsible for each other with a buddy system or group counting. Never leave a child alone in a vehicle.
And for safety’s sake, never hesitate to cut short a trip because of mechanical difficulties or a child’s unmanageable behavior.
In the event of an emergency or accident, never go on the road without the following:
a sign identifying name of the program, and the name and phone number of an emergency contact
a cell phone or message beeper
a list of children’s names, parents’ names, and emergency contact numbers
authorization forms for emergency transportation and medical treatment
a fire extinguisher
a first-aid kit

Gun and explosive safety
Guns, bows and arrows, hunting knives, BB guns, caps, darts, fireworks, and other projectile or exploding devices have no place in a child care facility. There is no foolproof—or childproof—way to make explosives safe in a child’s environment. If necessary, consider renting an off-site storage unit. The cost (usually less than $50 for a 4-foot by 8-foot space) is worth the cost of keeping children safe.

Pet safety
Animals can be a special addition to the environment—if you follow basic safety precautions. Insist that all new pets have visited a vet and are free of disease and infection before taking up residence in your program. Ask for a current vaccination certificate, if appropriate. Some animals, such as turtles and birds, carry diseases that are communicable to humans and are not appropriate in classrooms with young children. Some furry animals, including dogs, cats, hamsters, and guinea pigs may produce dander that causes allergies. If a child or adult has dander allergies, choose another animal for the classroom. Finally, always insist on careful hand-washing before and after handling pets and their cages, bedding, and food.