THE LAW: A major focus of emergency planning concerns how to help people with disabilities. However, employers must remember that federal laws may restrict what employers can do in emergencies.
Most notably, the ADA governs what questions employers may ask in preparing for emergencies. The Occupational Safety and Health Act requires employers to keep exits clearly marked and free of obstacles and trip hazards. Themay also apply.
WHAT’S NEW: Through the first eight months of 2011, nine different natural disasters forced businesses somewhere in the country to close. The total damage to the economy: an estimated $55 billion.
In response, the National Council on Disability (NCD) has published Effective Emergency Management: Making Improvements for Communities and People with Disabilities.
The report contains valuable information to help employers plan for emergencies.
It’s a preparedness blueprint for employers seeking federal grants, which require contractors to have plans that ensure their ability to complete work during emergencies.
HOW TO COMPLY: The NCD publication advises employers to develop emergency plans for each of these kinds of disasters:
- Rapid-onset events such as tornadoes and wildfires.
- Isolating events in which first responders may be unable to reach people with disabilities. Pandemics requiring quarantine and biological, chemical or nuclear contamination could necessitate sheltering in place.
- Power-failure events.
- Large-scale events, such as hurricanes or terror attacks, where emergency services may not be available.
Each employee should understand either what to do during a particular disaster type or know where to go to get information.
Employers must think this through. For example, directing employees to a website for instructions on coping with a power failure will not work.
Disabled employee needs
When disaster strikes, employers may be forced to meet employees’ medical needs. For example, many diabetics must keep their insulin refrigerated. What options are available in the event of a power failure?
To develop contingency plans, employers must know what disabilities their employees face. Normally, the ADA prohibits employers from making inquiries that may reveal an employee’s disability. However, in the wake of 9/11, the EEOC relaxed its rules to allow employers to inquire about disabilities, with the following provisos:
- All employees must be questioned about their medical conditions.
- The information must be used for emergency planning only.
- The information may not be used to make hiring, firing or promotion decisions.
The NCD publication advises employers to categorize their employees’ disabilities when making emergency plans. The NCD divides disabilities as follows:
Mobility. This refers “primarily to persons who have little or no use of their legs or arms. They generally use wheelchairs, or other devices as aids to movement.” Concerns for people with mobility disabilities might include:
- Sheltering for a rapid-onset event, such as a storm.
- Losing medical equipment during an evacuation.
Sensory. This term refers to “persons with hearing or visual limitations.” Concerns for the sensory disabled include:
- Being able to read educational and training materials on emergency preparedness that are in inaccessible formats.
- Hearing warning messages or seeing the area of concern on televised weather maps.
- Understanding televised weather warnings if closed-captioned information is not available.
- Navigational and other challenges in the workplace, especially if the building is damaged.
Developmental/cognitive. Concerns that may arise for people with developmental or cognitive disabilities include the following:
- Difficulty understanding instructions.
- Fear of a first responder or others with whom the individual is unfamiliar.
- Isolation in a strange environment if separated from a family member, friend or caretaker.
- Confusion over how to use a preventive health measure, for example, in a pandemic.
- Having an official assume that the individual does not understand procedures or messages when in fact he or she does.
Intersecting disabilities. Disabilities often overlap. An individual may, for example, have both mobility and sensory disabilities.
Once emergency plans have been developed, employers should consult with disabled employees to ensure they understand the procedures and determine whether they would need assistance in various kinds of emergencies types.
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