Safety… Last?

Hey, something I’ve been harping on for years is finally in the news!

Watch:

This absolutely is not an isolated incident. I’ve worked at four separate universities since I moved here. Every single one of them has done this. Big, huge, rusty chains locked with a padlock, bicycle chains… you name it, I’ve seen it all. I’m not sure about the place I work now—I should ask students tomorrow—but I wouldn’t be surprised. My impression is that, if it’s not universal, most universities do it. (And lots of other kinds of buildings, too.) 

Hell, at my last job, the office buildings were locked that way, too. There were loopholes—an elevator behind some random door that the guard never locked, or a single door in a complex of buildings that would be regularly left unlocked, if you knew where to look—but the buildings where my offices were located were both locked with chains, and no apparent way out if you ended up at the office late and didn’t happen to know about these means of exit. (In one building, sometimes there were security guards around. Sometimes. Not always, though, especially after midnight.)

At every university I’ve worked at, since I noticed it, I’ve brought it up to students. In my last job—the one I worked seven years, where I mostly loved the students and worked hard to advocate for them—I brought it up to colleagues, administrators, and classes alike, trying to raise awareness that it’s (a) illegal and (b) dangerous, trying to get someone to do something, even if it was just to report it to the local fire department.

This, of course, achieved absolutely nothing. 

I remember saying, “So… we’re just going to wait until this kills some students, and then change it? Really?”

Of course, that was poo-pooed. “Don’t worry so much,” I was told.

Yeah, well. 

The thing is, in South Korean society, this kind of negligent disregard for safety is kind of ubiquitous.

Ask yourself why half the doors on any major building in South Korea are “locked” or “fixed.” If the people running the building didn’t want that many doors, why have them installed? Why not design it with fewer entrances?

Okay, I’m not a building code expert, but I’m willing to bet that it’s fire safety regulations that mandate the number of doors a building must have, according to its expected capacity. Hence a campus hall has X number of doors.

The point being that you’re not supposed to be locking up half of them. If people need to get out in a hurry, that bottleneck costs lives. It gets people trampled, asphyxiated, and injured or killed.

Meanwhile, it’s not even really apparent to me why the doors are locked, except because a lot of people seem to have a deep-seated desire to create bottlenecks… well, and minimize how much work they need to do at the end of the day. (If half of the doors are already locked, you only have to lock the other half, as one security guard commented, through a student, when I asked about this.)

So I wonder if the incident reported in this video will create any momentum for change… I wish it would, but the fact that the guard went straight back to chaining the door a few days after the original incident boggles my mind. The fact administration claimed they didn’t know about it doesn’t, though: that’s downright typical. If you believe that claim, you’re an idiot. The chaining of dormitory exits at night is universally known on the campuses where it’s practiced: it’s no secret, and if students complained to administration about it absent some dangerous, near-fatal incident, can you guess what would happen? 

My money’s on nothing happening, because I have raised the issue time and time again, and that’s what happened. It’s almost enough for me to bust out those old topic tags I used to use when writing about stuff like this: “Nonfunctional Systems” and “The Art of Avoidable Cataclysm.”

Here’s hoping that changes. But… it’s still only one specific safety issue, in a landscape rife with general disregard for safety protocols. That’s a much bigger problem to fix.

Because the really alarming thing is that students weren’t complaining about this from the day it started: they didn’t see how it could be a safety issue. Why that is, is a harder question to answer: and a more important one to tackle. 

2 thoughts on “Safety… Last?

  1. I figure the doors locked during business hours are locked to try to reduce air flow and keep the interior warmer/cooler than outside because Koreans seem unable or unwilling to close a door behind them.

    Anyway, it seems my first post on locked doors in university and residential high school dorms was ten years ago. My complaints made one school leave a ‘deok hammer’ next to the chained door (A deok hammer is used to smash rice flour to make deok. It is huge and entirely made of wood, with a giant head). In a form of progress of sorts, that hammer is now replaced by two modern ceramic tipped hammers. Smaller emergency exits were still chained and no hammers of any sort were present.

    If Koreans are now concerned about chains on doors, our next step is do something about the fire emergency rappelling kits on upper floors. And by do something I might mean, remove and replace with more useful escape strategies or just use. I would love to rappel down the side of a tall building!

    1. Hey,

      I figure the doors locked during business hours are locked to try to reduce air flow and keep the interior warmer/cooler than outside because Koreans seem unable or unwilling to close a door behind them.

      Well, I mean… then why install doors that stand open when left open? It’s trivially easy to design and install doors that close automatically. Also, to train people to close doors behind them: they could be, if anyone actually gave a damn about that.

      Also, nonsense on “warmer/cooler”: most buildings that are chained this way aren’t heated in public spaces, just in individual rooms. There is no heat/cool to keep in. (And, you know, actually insulating buildings properly would do much more.)

      Anyway, it seems my first post on locked doors in university and residential high school dorms was ten years ago. My complaints made one school leave a ‘deok hammer’ next to the chained door (A deok hammer is used to smash rice flour to make deok. It is huge and entirely made of wood, with a giant head). In a form of progress of sorts, that hammer is now replaced by two modern ceramic tipped hammers. Smaller emergency exits were still chained and no hammers of any sort were present.

      Well, progress is progress. My complaints have never led to anything. Not once. I feel like basically in most institutions, if it’s not a Korean complaining, nothing ever gets done, and if it is a Korean complaining, they need to be old and male and high-ranking enough or nothing gets done either. (So, if you’re not an older male, you often need to be able to pull strings.)

      That said, I’m kind of baffled about why fire departments aren’t making surprise inspections, and why they’re not fining chronic violators of fire safety laws. Well, not baffled—it doesn’t surprise me—but sort of baffled by how this is generally deemed acceptable. I guess it’s just too much like doing one’s job?

      That said, now I’m very curious about how the relatively-useless big glass doors with handles and stupid-locks (no fire door egress capacity) became the norm in Korea. Something makes me suspect some glassmaking company owner was buddy buddy with the right government official in the 1960s or 1970s. It’s bizarre that Korea hasn’t discovered fire doors that lock for those outside, but allow those inside to exit. (Those are ubiquitous in the west, in my experience.) Of course, it could be that such doors are marginally more expensive to manufacture, use more metal, and must be installed after a building has settled in order for them to remain functional more than a year or two.

      If Koreans are now concerned about chains on doors, our next step is do something about the fire emergency rappelling kits on upper floors. And by do something I might mean, remove and replace with more useful escape strategies or just use. I would love to rappel down the side of a tall building!

      Well, I’d prefer something a little more useful. And yeah, I just realized a little while ago that our new apartment (as of last year) has no rappelling kit in the emergency exit room. My wife was going to bring it up to the landlord, but it must have slipped her mind. That said, does anyone inspect those kits and make sure they’re still functional? I would imagine the number of malfunctions is enough to warrant it, especially in older buildings. I’d also assume a lot of Korean landlords would be unwilling to replace them, and the local legal authorities would be unwilling to fine them for refusing. *shrug*

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