Preparing for Emergencies: Part 2 – Assisting People with Disabilities

We discussed the importance of thinking through potential emergencies and coming up with a plan to handle them, but an effective plan also must account for the needs of employees with various types of disabilities.

During the planning process, there are opportunities for clear and acceptable communication between employees and employers, and usually people with disabilities will be best able to determine what, if any, help they may need. Don’t assume that employees with obvious disabilities always will need help during an evacuation — but also keep in mind that employees with cognitive or developmental disabilities may need help in determining and communicating their needs, suggests the U.S. Department of Labor.

Obviously, even the most thoughtful plan can’t account for every possibility. Perhaps someone who would need help hasn’t spoken up, or new health needs come up in the midst of an emergency. That’s where practice and flexibility come in. The Department of Labor suggests regular and varied drills, handled as if the situation is real. Regular practice helps figure out what works, keep the emergency plan up to date, and build flexibility into the plan.

Don’t get caught unprepared when it comes to your employees’ safety.

Here are some of our Frequently Asked Questions about crafting a workplace emergency plan that accounts for the needs of employees with disabilities:

What are our obligations regarding emergency planning under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)?

Your responsibilities are no different for any employee — you’re charged with keeping them safe and giving them accommodation to work around abilities. It just happens that some employees have special needs that you’re required to work around. Your place of business already should be ADA compliant (if it isn’t, seek help with this). When preparing a plan, you just need to factor in the needs of every employee.

The ADA does require “areas of refuge” or “areas of rescue assistance” in new buildings, except for those with approved sprinkler systems. Make sure that employees know about those areas and that employees and visitors — including those who have limited hearing or vision — can easily and quickly get that information.

How do we talk about emergency preparedness planning with our employees with disabilities without making them feel “singled out”?

If it’s part of the plan, just like with every other employee, they won’t be.

When employees start, is it OK to ask them if they might require assistance in an emergency?

If an employee has self-identified a disability, then yes, it’s OK. If you’re asking everyone if they might need assistance in an emergency, it’s OK too — provided that the information offered is voluntary.

How can we draft and distribute emergency protocols for protecting our employees with disabilities without violating their HIPAA rights?

It’s pretty simple — just ask them if it’s OK. Most employees with any type of special needs probably will be grateful for the help. No matter the circumstance, businesses must be respectful of employees’ privacy. Although safety and emergency evacuation personnel will need to be aware of certain disability-related information, make sure that they’re given only the pertinent facts and not irrelevant details about a disability.

Need help crafting a plan? Contact us today.