We live in a world where both disasters as well as safety incidents are on the rise. While the potential for natural disaster, like earthquake or volcano, depends on the geographical location of one’s residence, safety incidents like road accident and electrocution can happen anywhere. Developing countries, including India, are particularly vulnerable to both natural disasters and safety incidents. While more than 10,000 people die on average every year in India in natural hazards, the number of those killed in safety-related incidents is over 400,000. Road accidents alone kill more than 150,000 people every year in India, which is the highest in the world, ahead of both China (which has most population) and the United States (which has more cars) combined.
Governments, both at the centre and in state, are doing a lot to improve the management of disasters and safety. Yet the carnage continues and everybody agrees that only a change in the culture of safety can reverse this trend. That will need safety and disaster management lessons introduced in the curriculum quite early on. Introducing safety lessons in school has three distinct but complementary advantages (1) Children are safe during their school-related activities (during their journey to school, at schools and activities including excursions) (2) Children learn lessons about safety which they can use in their personal and professional life and (3) Children are able to transmit these lessons to others in their family and workplace in future.
Now, safety is not a specific topic in school education. While there are safety initiatives in a number of schools, such efforts have not been mainstreamed into the academic system. A three-phased approach to promoting school safety and introducing basic concept of safety education is suggested. In Phase 1 awareness raising, the Government makes efforts to raise the awareness on safety issues among schoolchildren and teachers by introducing safety as a topic for discussion during major school-related activities (this includes the very first day or orientation and other special events in school such as sports days and excursion).
This will increase the profile of safety in the school system and provide children with basic guidance on avoiding critical safety risks. Teachers can teach them safe practices such as crossing the road and walking on the correct side of the road to minimize accidents. This message can be repeated during every school activity such as excursions. Safety briefing is given prior to the event, improving safety compliance and highlighting the importance of the topic. Phase II involves risk assessment and capacity building. Individual schools and specific activities on the school calendar are assessed for their safety impact and recommendations are made for avoiding safety risks within school and school-related activities.
Every school, depending on its geographical location, age of children and nature of structures will have different safety and disaster potentials. A school built of wood will have different issues than one built with concrete. A building on a slope will have a different exposure than on the seaside. A three-storied building has different safety risks than a single storey. During this phase selected teachers will be trained on safety audit of schools as well as first aid so that they can undertake school safety audit, establish a professional system for first aid and be the safety focal points within schools.
Every school should then conduct a safety risk assessment, involving students and parents. Findings of safety risk assessment should be communicated to the parent-teacher association. Structural measures and procedural changes are needed to improve safety at schools. All residual safety risks should be communicated to students. In Phase III, mainstreaming safety in school curriculum will be revised to see how best to integrate safety lessons. This will need more guidance and additional support to teachers for effective implementation. Safety lessons can not only be introduced as a separate topic but can also be embedded in other topics such as English, history or civics.
Do not confuse safety, disaster
People often confuse between safety and disaster management. A safety issue is a situation where harm is caused by an external cause to a human, animal or property. Such cause may be fire, lightning, vehicles, water or height. A disaster is a situation in which the impact of an incident is beyond the ability of the local system to deal with. A person falling from the roof and breaking his leg is a safety incident but not a disaster. A fire at school is a safety incident, but can also be a disaster if appropriate systems to deal with it are not locally available. There are many common elements in dealing with a safety situation and disaster situation but they are not identical.
It is also important to get disaster management into the curriculum of academic systems. Disaster management focuses on efforts to prevent, prepare and respond to risks (both natural and manmade) which have the potential to cause serious harm. These include earthquakes, floods, industrial accidents and tsunamis. The likelihood of these risks manifesting is very small but the impact will be much higher when they do. Similar to safety risk assessment, all academic institutions should conduct disaster risk assessments of their facilities as part of integrating disasters into curriculum. Students should be taught about natural hazards, what role climate change plays in exacerbating natural hazards, how human beings are responsible for climate change and how countries and communities are to deal with disasters and climate change.
Information on existing systems for disaster management, including disaster management authorities, should be introduced to students. At higher levels students should also be taught how to prevent disasters by eliminating the exposure to disasters by improved land use planning or increasing resilience to
Safety, security different
Yet another subject closely linked to safety but not entirely the same is security.
Safety and security technologies are often used in an interchangeable manner so much so that when translated into Malayalam there is no distinction between possible translations. However, in English these words are clearly meant to deal with two different issues. Safety issues deal with risks to children, about which cause them harm but there is no intention from anybody to cause them deliberate harm.
Security issues, on the other hand, deal with risks to children where there is an intention from someone to cause them harm. Children falling from a bus is safety issue but children being sexually abused in school bus is a security incident. There are a number of security issues at every school, from bullying to sexual harassment. Some of the issues are specific to the girl child, which are also important and need to be addressed. It will be appropriate to deal with these also in the curriculum.
(Author is Chief of Disaster Risk Reduction, UN Environment Programme)