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Workplace emergency preparedness: Are employees with disabilities protected, too?

We’d like our workplaces to be safe, but as recent headlines attest, job sites are not immune from natural or manmade disasters. Since Sept. 11, 2001, when thousands of employees – those with disabilities and those with none, were trapped in the World Trade Center Towers, many employers, under federal government pressure, developed emergency procedures. But are employees with disabilities part of those procedures?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “too often the needs of people with disabilities are not considered in emergency planning, despite the fact that the need for such planning has received an increased focus due to recent disasters, both natural and man-made.”

The Society of Human Resource Management says companies are not required to have emergency plans under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but if an emergency preparedness plan is in place, it must include employees with disabilities. And even if a company doesn’t have an emergency plan, it may have a requirement to address emergency evacuation for employees with disabilities as a reasonable accommodation.”

The issue gets more complicated when, as the National Council on Disabilities points out, the term disability “applies to people with heart disease, emotional or psychiatric conditions, arthritis, significant allergies, asthma, multiple chemical sensitivities, respiratory conditions, and some visual, hearing, and cognitive disabilities.” These employees’ needs likely differ from the worker who is blind and needs to be evacuated with a guide dog, or the employee who uses a wheelchair who knows that the elevators have been shut down.

News organizations can help inform the public and call businesses to account by checking to see what local companies have done – or not done – to address the needs of employees with disabilities in their emergency planning.  It’s a critical issue.

More information:

By Susan LoTempio​, board member, National Center on Disability and Journalism

Contact @susanlotempio