Staff at the Department for Education’s office in Sheffield struggled to evacuate following discovery of a “suspect package” because of overcrowding, civil servants have told Schools Week.
Workers at the offices in St Paul’s Place, Sheffield, were ordered to evacuate at around 1.55pm on May 18, the same day that DfE permanent secretary Susan Acland-Hood visited.
The department has asked staff to work from their offices more often, but the Sheffield building has nearly double the number of staff than desks.
But it resulted in queues in the building’s stairwell and to get off upper floors, staff reported, due to the volume of people working in the building.
Schools Week spoke to two civil servants and understands several more have complained about the incident.
We revealed last week how staff at DfE offices had been forced to work in corridors and canteens after the government’s return-to-the-office edict because of a shortage of desks.
Figures obtained by this newspaper show Sheffield staff outnumber desks at St Paul’s Place by almost two-to-one, with just 790 workstations for 1,489 staff. It is not known how many worked from the office on Wednesday.
DfE admits evacuation ‘quite slow’
In a message to Sheffield staff after the incident, the DfE said the evacuation was caused by a “police incident due to a suspect package”. South Yorkshire Police was unable to find a record of the incident when contacted by Schools Week, however.
The DfE said it understood the evacuation was “quite slow as we needed to push building occupants to evacuate at the front of the building and away from the incident”.
Staff were asked to re-enter the building “approximately 10 minutes later, following the direction from police”, the DfE said.
However, one civil servant, who asked to remain anonymous, said they had not managed to make it out of the building by the time the order to return came through.
“There was that many people in the building that no one could exit. I didn’t even get more than 15 steps from my desk before the crowd of people in front meant there was nowhere for me to go.
“The stairwell was full of people and it did not move, we were trapped. There were fire wardens stuck on each floor not able to get out and direct people away from the building.”
They described the incident as “really scary”, adding: “We had been told to evacuate and yet couldn’t do it. There was an air of panic.”
Top DfE boss visited the same day
Another staffmember said the building was particularly busy on Wednesday, as DfE permanent secretary Susan Acland-Hood was visiting the office that day.
However, staff said the incident was not brought up in a subsequent all-staff meeting.
The order to return to the office follows pressure from the efficiency minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and comes after the DfE came last in a leaked list of department occupancy last month, with just 25 per cent of staff working in the office.
One staffmember said the DfE was “only interested in their position in the cabinet office league table”.
“We as a department do not have the appropriate infrastructure in place to cope with the return to office arrangements as they stand. There is not enough space for us all, we cannot be accommodated safely and it’s having a devastating impact on morale and mental health.”
Some staff missed evacuation order
Schools Week understands the order to evacuate was also not heard by some staff because the tannoy system did not work in all meeting rooms.
“There is a heath and safety disaster waiting to happen,” a staffmember said. “Imagine how panicked everyone would had been standing still on a staircase trying to evacuate if there was a smell of smoke, or visible signs of smoke.
“There would have been a stampede, a crush which would have led to many people loosing their life due to inadequate evacuation plans, poor planning and an office that has too many people in it for the infrastructure to cope with.”
The DfE’s message told staff to familiarise themselves with fire and security plans for the office, “including the location of the evacuation assembly points”.
“Any staff trained as fire wardens should support and clear the floors as part of their role.”
The message also called for feedback from staff and fire wardens to “support the team in improving the management of future incidents”.
The DfE declined to comment on the incident when approached by Schools Week.
However, a spokesperson said it had asked staff to “start by looking at” spending 80 per cent of their working time in the office, but claimed it had given managers “flexibility” to adjust that to between 60 and 80 per cent.
These arrangements “can include even more flexibility in exceptional circumstances due to issues like caring responsibilities or health concerns”.
The DfE claimed the approach “fits with the amount of desk space we have, gives us full and vibrant offices but also retains flexibility to work in different ways when needed”.