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Emergency Provisions for All: How to Ensure All Employees Remain Safe in Any Emergency Situation.
Tuesday, May 29, 2012

How to ensure disabled, injured and pregnant employees remain safe in any emergency situation.                        

A fire breaks out in your workplace, triggering the alarm. Among the many thoughts that flash though your mind is the hope that all employees are, and remain, safe. You take comfort in knowing that your company has an emergency response plan and employees have been trained on it. Early detection and escape are the most important keys to surviving.

This plan sounds good. But does it consider employees who need help exiting the building? If an employee is hearing-impaired, for example, he may not hear the alarm. If that employee is working alone, no one may know to look for him to let him know that the alarm has sounded. If an employee is in a wheelchair and is not on a ground floor, she may need rescue assistance.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 36 million Americans who have a disability. Ten percent of all people ages 18 to 64 have disabilities. In 2010, the employment-to-population ratio was 18.6% for people with disabilities. In short, workplaces across the country employ millions of workers with disabilities, yet many regrettably-and perhaps illegally-neglect the safety of some employees.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act, for example, requires that emergency action plans cover the measures that employers and employees take to ensure employee safety during emergencies. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination. And the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces the employment provisions of the ADA, indicates that a comprehensive emergency evacuation plan should provide for prompt and effective assistance to individuals who have conditions that may necessitate it.

Get to Know Your Employees

One of the first steps you can take to ensure that all employees remain safe during an emergency is to identify possible emergencies that may occur at your facility. This should include natural occurrences such as tornadoes, floods and thunderstorms, along with occurrences such as acts of workplace violence or accidents.

From there, identify those who may need assistance during the emergencies identified. Although the ADA includes personal medical confidentiality provisions, these provisions include an exception that allows employers to share medical information with first aid and safety personnel.

Keep in mind that some employees may need assistance because of medical conditions that are not visually apparent. Others may have obvious disabilities or medical conditions but may not need assistance. 

One way to identify those who may need assistance comes after making a job offer, but before employment begins. Ask candidates whether they will need assistance during an emergency. You should also periodically survey employees to determine if they will require assistance in an emergency, since individuals' circumstances may change. 

Finally, ask employees with known disabilities if they will require assistance in the event of an emergency. Do not assume, however, that everyone with a disability will need assistance during an evacuation. For example, many individuals with vision impairments may prefer no assistance. 

You will need to explain the purpose for requesting the information and make clear that such self-identification is voluntary and that the information will be kept confidential. Do not ask for an individual's entire medical history; employers are entitled only to the information necessary for them to provide assistance.

Do not forget about employees who are temporarily disabled. If someone is sporting a leg cast, for example, exiting the facility may require some help. Other individuals that require consideration are pregnant women and those with heart or respiratory conditions.

Work Together

After identifying the appropriate employees, you should work with them; individuals with disabilities are generally in the best position to assess their particular needs. They should be included in the decision on which equipment and procedures will work for them. This will also help give them confidence that they will be protected. Remember that every individual with a disability has unique abilities and limitations, and should be treated on an individual basis. 

It also helps to let your local fire, police and rescue departments know that your facility has employees who need emergency assistance. They may provide information as to whether such employees should remain in their workplaces, assemble in an area of refuge to await the arrival of rescue workers or evacuate immediately.

Once employees are identified, you can shift your focus to overcoming hurdles to reaching safety in a timely manner. Some practices may work better for your facility than others. Use the information gathered to help sort out what will work best.

One method to help some employees with impairments exit safely is a buddy system. This involves training an appropriate coworker to assist an employee with an impairment during emergencies. The buddy needs to be trained to ensure that he or she can locate the employee who needs assistance, and that the buddy can, and knows how to, help the employee get to safety. 

While these systems are widely accepted, they may not work in all situations. You would need to determine if they would work for certain employees at your organization.

Tools and Technology

Various types of equipment are available to help employees with impairments in emergency situations. Emergency notification systems are perhaps the most common example. The Underwriters Laboratories Standard for Emergency Signaling Devices for the Hearing-Impaired (UL 1971), establishes criteria for systems used for emergency notification. Some of these systems include strobes and other visual warnings. Keep in mind that lighted strobes should not exceed five flashes per second due to risk of triggering seizures in some individuals. You do not want to implement a "solution" that leads to new, unintended problems. 

Manual pull stations should be mounted at a height of 48 to 54 inches, and Braille signs should be installed to aid employees with visual impairments. In a fire, however, people are instructed to stay low to the ground. From this position, it may be impossible to reach Braille signs. You may want to consider placing tactile markers lower on the walls of exit routes. Keep in mind that Braille signs provide no directional guidance on how to find such routes. 

Audible directional signs and pedestrian systems inform visually impaired employees about their environment. Some transmit signals that are picked up by a receiver carried by the individual. Others emit noises to alert employees to things such as changing traffic signals.

Lastly, movement aids and equipment can help employees with mobility limitations. These include "controlled descent" devices and wheelchair lifts.

Area of Refuge/Rescue Assistance

For buildings with more than one story, emergency exits are usually provided at stairways, since elevators may stop operating during emergencies. Therefore, locations referred to as "areas of refuge/rescue assistance" are recommended, even if your building has other emergency evacuation equipment.

An area of refuge/rescue assistance is a safe waiting area with additional floor space where people can stand or park a wheelchair while they wait for assistance. If people using wheelchairs attempt to remain on a typical small landing, they could restrict the path for other people as well as put their own safety in jeopardy. Areas of refuge should not be in an emergency egress route, but they should be on an accessible route on each floor of a multi-story building. Additionally, ensure they are in a designated fire-protected area approved by a local building authority that is adjacent to an exit stairway and large enough for, at a minimum, two wheelchair users to position themselves out of the path of travel. And all areas of refuge/rescue assistance must be equipped with a two-way communication system and adequate signs identifying the area.

If the area has no escape route, it should have an operating phone, cell phone, TTY (text telephone) and two-way radio so that emergency services can be contacted; a closing door; supplies that enable individuals to block smoke from entering the room from under the door; respirator masks; and a window near something to write on glass with or a "help" sign to alert rescuers that people are in this location.

In order to get to an area of assistance, there must be an accessible route. This route should remain clear of obstructions and point the way to safety. Appropriate signs can help lead the way. 

The facility should also have accessible means of egress, emergency alarms and signage. Building codes, life safety codes, and federal and state accessibility standards address these and other elements related to emergency egress.

Training and Practice

All employees should be trained in their roles during an emergency. They should be aware of how emergencies are communicated, and, if necessary, how to help coworkers with impairments. If people do not know what to do, they are left to fend for themselves.

Ensure that the entire staff knows the basic provisions of the ADA and the responsibilities involved. They also must understand the limitations that impairments pose, how to deal with individuals with impairments and, of course, the general emergency procedures of the organization, including emergency notification, communication, assistance, first aid and the facility's layout.

There must be an appropriate number of trained employees to ensure coverage for employees with impairments. If you have security personnel that provide services after hours, you should include them on the training to cover for employees working late.

Employees need to know how to reach safety quickly and in an orderly manner. Some may need training on helping a coworker with an impairment get to safety. The level of training depends upon the tasks expected to be performed.

Once your plans are in place, they should be practiced with contingencies considered and reviewed regularly to ensure they remain current. If an element of the plan does not work, it is better discovered at the planning or practicing stage than during a real emergency.  

Drills should also be used to practice rescue situations with employees who need assistance. With luck, employees will never need to use the skills learned and practiced, but they may be invaluable if duty calls them into action.

Unfortunately, tragedies have occurred that have tested some employer emergency action plans. Because of these events, however, organizations have learned the importance of being aware of employees with impairments, and including them in emergency plans. Remember that emergencies can happen at any time, so waiting until an actual emergency happens at your facility to learn if your plan truly ensures safety for all your employees may be a recipe for disaster. 


Darlene M. Clabault, PHR, is the senior editor of human resources content at J. J. Keller & Associates. 

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