Disability-Inclusive Workplace Emergency Plans: Tips for Employers

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Both employers and potential employees with disabilities may hesitate to enter an employment agreement due to concerns over safety in the workplace in the event of an emergency. But with a little planning, employers can ensure the safety of all employees, including those with disabilities, and employees can feel secure knowing their needs will be met in an emergency.

Gathering Disability Information to Prepare for an Emergency

Knowing if an employee may need assistance in an emergency helps employers prepare to keep employees safe. Employers have three key opportunities to employers to obtain disability information that may be critical for emergency purposes, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Policy (ODEP).

  1. Before Employment Begins
    After a job offer has been made, but before employment commences, all entering employees in the same type of position may be asked disability-related questions, including whether they would require assistance in the event of an emergency and, if so, what type of assistance would be necessary.
  2. On the Job
    All employees may be asked to voluntarily self-identify whether they have impairments that would make assistance necessary in the event of an emergency. For those who respond affirmatively, employers may ask what type of assistance they would need.
  3. Employees with Obvious Disabilities
    Even if an employer decides not to ask all employees to voluntarily self-identify as needing assistance in an emergency, employees with known disabilities may be asked whether and what type of assistance they may need in an emergency. An employer should not assume that employees with obvious disabilities will always need assistance during an evacuation. However, they should keep in mind that people with cognitive or developmental disabilities may need additional assistance in determining and articulating their needs. Generally, people with disabilities are in the best position to determine their own needs.

Only necessary and appropriate information regarding an employee’s emergency needs should be shared with safety and emergency evacuation personnel.

Tips for Developing, Implementing, and Maintaining a Workplace Emergency Plan

Emergency planning is an ongoing process. Workplace emergency plans must be practiced regularly using varied drills, then evaluated and updated regularly. ODEP offers these suggestions to ensure the safety of all employees:

  • Ensure that all phases of emergency management consider the needs of people with disabilities, including varying disabilities (e.g., vision, mobility, developmental, psychiatric, hearing). It is prudent to involve individuals with disabilities at the planning stage in order to ensure that the needs of individuals with disabilities are adequately addressed in the plan.
  • Obtain support and commitment from senior-level management. A plan will only be as good as the financial and personnel resources supporting it.
  • Involve key personnel in emergency management activities. This includes building managers, safety and security personnel, first responders, managers, and the disability community. It is also beneficial to work with adjacent businesses and agencies to avoid conflicts regarding evacuation routes and assembly areas.
  • Take into account the building location as well as the flow of employees and visitors on a typical day. It may also be helpful to consider the building occupants. For example, is the building occupied primarily by Federal agencies or does it include private sector organizations as well?
  • Define, agree upon, and communicate to all necessary staff the steps for evaluating an emergency and taking subsequent action. With regard to shelter-in-place, establish plans that facilitate communication with all staff and visitors, including those who are deaf or hard of hearing or may have communication difficulties.
  • Ensure that necessary procedures, equipment, signage, and supports are in place to safely evacuate (or get to safety) all employees. Remember to consider individuals with various types of disabilities. Talk with employees, other employers, community-based organizations and local emergency response personnel to determine the most appropriate solutions for your workplace and employees. Keep in mind that no standards are currently in place for evacuation devices; employers and employees must conduct their own research in this area.
  • Determine appropriate situations for elevator use. Most people are conditioned to avoid elevators during an emergency. However, elevators can be used in certain circumstances. Talk with emergency response personnel to discuss this issue relative to your workplace.
  • Areas of refuge or areas of rescue assistance are a requirement under the ADA, Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards, and the International Building Code. Such areas are only necessary in new buildings. Structures with an approved sprinkler system are an exception and do not require an area of refuge.
  • Ensure that all employees and visitors, including those who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind or have low vision, have access to the same information in a detailed and timely manner.
  • Develop a support network of several individuals without disabilities who are willing to assist employees with disabilities in an emergency.

Emergency Planning Resources for Employers

Use these resources to learn more about developing, implementing, and maintaining a disability-inclusive workplace emergency plan:

Emergency Preparedness and People with Disabilities Webpage
Resources related to workplace emergency preparedness, including Preparing the Workplace for Everyone, a framework of guidelines for federal agencies, from ODEP.

Job Accommodation Network (JAN)
Free, confidential service from ODEP that provides information on accommodations for people with disabilities and related topics, including guidance on including employees with disabilities in emergency evacuation plans.

1-800-526-7234 (voice)
1-800-ADA-WORK (1-800-232-9675) (voice)
1-877-781-9403 (TTY)

Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Office of Disability Integration and Coordination
Information on whole community emergency management, inclusive of individuals with disabilities and others with access and functional needs, including guidance, tools, methods, and strategies to establish equal physical, program, and effective communication access.

U.S. Access Board website
Information on specific state access codes.

Source: Effective Emergency Preparedness Planning: Addressing the Needs of Employees with Disabilities, from the United States Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy

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