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Evacuation planning: Pay attention to ADA responsibilities

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

The ADA requires you to provide disabled employees with equal access to all employer-sponsored programs. That may require you to make reasonable accommodations for disabled workers.

While the ADA was created to stop employment discrimination, the law also requires you to provide equal access (and possibly accommodations) for disabled employees in the area of emergency evacuations from your workplace.

What's new

In the aftermath of 9/11, the Labor Department's Office of Disability Employment Policy focused on employers' duties in helping disabled employees safely leave the workplace in case of an emergency. It released a publication, Preparing the Workplace for Everyone, that's directed at federal agencies but offers lots of helpful advice for private employers, too.

To help employers discover which employees need extra help in evacuating the building, the EEOC has relaxed its rules on the type of medical-related questions you can legally ask employees. Typically, you can't ask questions that might reveal a disability. But EEOC rules issued in October 2001 let you ask employees if they'd need assistance in the event of an emergency evacuation.

How to comply

Review your emergency evacuation plans to make sure they take into account the needs of disabled employees. Some issues to consider: 

Survey the staff. You can periodically ask current employees whether they need assistance in emergencies. Make clear that self-identification is voluntary. Also, you're allowed to ask employees with known disabilities whether they'd need extra help.

Create a readable plan. Make sure all employees have copies of the evacuation plan and communicate it to all employees in the same frequency and level of detail.

If your plan is online, make sure it's accessible to blind or low-vision employees using screen readers or speech-recognition technology. Host any meetings about the plan in accessible locations.

Choose the right alarms ... and test. To help people with hearing problems, consider installing strobe lights or vibrating alerting devices to supplement audible alarms. Regularly make sure your alarms are in working order and accessible by disabled people.

Clear the route. Remove any physical barriers (boxes, supplies, furniture) to ensure a barrier-free route out of the building. Generally, it's assumed that fire truck ladders can reach the seventh floor of a building. Employers should designate windows where fire trucks can reach and ledges are large enough to stand or sit on.

Give options. When planning for evacuation, allow disabled employees to choose their preferred means for evacuation. One popular option is the buddy system, in which another employee or employees ensure the disabled worker evacuates.

Consider technology. In some buildings with multiple floors, employers provide "evacuation chairs" for employees with mobility limits. These are wheelchairs with the ability to go down steps, a valuable commodity when elevators are out of service.

Perform occasional drills. They're essential to understanding an evacuation plan's strengths and weaknesses in relation to disabled workers. Some key issues to look for: 

  • Do disabled employees impede others from evacuating?
  • Do disabled employees and their designated buddies know where designated windows and evacuation chairs are? 
  • Can hearing and visually impaired employees be alerted by the alarms? 
  • Are evacuation routes posted prominently throughout the building? 

Online resources: Emergency planning 

  • Employers' Guide to Including Employees with Disabilities in Emergency Evacuation Plans, The Job Accommodation Network, www.jan.wvu.edu/media/emergency.html
  • Preparing the Workplace for Everyone: Accounting for the Needs of People with Disabilities, U.S. Labor Department, www.dol.gov/odep/pubs/ep/preparing.htm
  • Emergency Evacuation Procedures, The Access Board, www.access-board.gov/evacplan.htm
  • Fact Sheet on Obtaining and Using Employee Medical Information as Part of Emergency Evacuation Procedures, EEOC, www.eeoc.gov/facts/evacuation.html

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