Blind World Magazine

EEOC calls for more inclusive emergency preparedness.

October 28, 2005.
SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management).

Employers' emergency plans should be inclusive not simply to ensure Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, but to protect all workers' safety, including persons with disabilities, pointed out Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Chair Cari Dominguez at an Oct. 25 agency meeting.

She has learned from her own experience and the agency's about the need for emergency preparedness. When a magnitude 7 earthquake hit San Francisco, Dominguez, a former human resource executive, was on the 44th floor of the Bank America Building and felt it sway.

Years later, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks caused the World Trade Center's Twin Towers to collapse onto a building that housed the EEOC's New York office. More recently, Hurricane Katrina devastated the EEOC's New Orleans office.

All of these experiences underlie Dominguez's understanding of the need for emergency preparedness, which she said may "sound fancy or bureaucratic," but is critically important.

Learning from experience

"Since 9/11 we can no longer avoid thinking of disasters," reflected Vice Chair Naomi Earp. Her nomination for a second term, which ends 2010, was approved by the Senate on Oct. 21.

Disasters may strike the workplace as a terrorist attack or a natural disaster, but employers have a special responsibility to prepare for the safety of all workers in emergencies, Earp said. This is particularly true since most Americans spend the majority of their days at work, she added.

Commissioner Leslie Silverman agreed, saying the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Arlington, Va., showed the vital importance of inclusive emergency planning.

Hurricane Katrina's impact illustrates for Daniel Sutherland, an officer for civil rights and civil liberties with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the need for employers to have inclusive emergency evacuation plans.

The Gulf Coast's demographics have shown that 25 percent of those who lived in Biloxi, Miss., prior to the storm had disabilities, compared with 24 percent in Mobile, Ala., and 21 percent in New Orleans, he noted in testimony before commissioners. When individuals at Houston shelters were asked why they had not evacuated ahead of Hurricane Katrina, 22 percent said they were physically unable and 23 percent were caring for someone who was physically unable to leave, he said.

Making emergency plans inclusive is not a niche issue, Sutherland remarked. He predicted that after Katrina, employers will be particularly interested in action-oriented solutions and inclusive emergency plans.

Failure to make emergency plans inclusive can be deadly, testified Anne Hirsch, service manager with the U.S. Department of Labor's (DOL) Job Accommodation Network.

At the World Trade Center (WTC) on Sept. 11, "an individual in a wheelchair on the 27th floor and another individual in a wheelchair on the 87th floor had no way to evacuate and are listed among the 2,823 individuals that perished in the attack," she said.

But a wheelchair user on the 68th floor was transferred into an evacuation chair and exited safely, she noted.

Michael Hingson, who is blind, recounted his experiences evacuating one of the Twin Towers. As mid-Atlantic manager for Quantum Corp., he worked on the 78th floor of the north tower when a plane struck 18 floors above on the building's opposite side. Hingson felt the impact and smelled the jet fuel, but did not know what had happened.

He was not completely unprepared, though. Following the 1993 bombing there, Hingson encouraged his employees to become familiar with the building's emergency procedures.

"Since most of the employees of Quantum were normally not in the office, they needed to make special trips into the WTC to participate in drills. I required everyone to participate in one scheduled drill a year."

As for tailoring the emergency preparedness to suit his own needs, Hingson had the emergency preparedness manuals read to him.

"I also made certain I was familiar with the instructions on all posted signs in the hallways. I learned the locations of all stairwells and fire extinguishers," he said.

In preparing for emergencies, "there has to be mutual discussion and awareness" about what assistance employees with disabilities may need in emergencies, he commented. Hingson noted that the EEOC has explained how employers may discuss emergency assistance with disabled employees in its Fact Sheet on Obtaining and Using Employee Medical Information as Part of Emergency Evacuation Procedures.

It highlights some pertinent exceptions to the ADA's general prohibition on disability-related inquiries, outlining three ways an employer may obtain information about emergency assistance from persons with disabilities:

. After making a job offer, but before employment begins, an employer may ask all individuals if they will need assistance during an emergency.

. An employer may periodically survey all its current employees to determine if they will require emergency assistance, as long as it clarifies that self-identification is voluntary and explains the purpose for requesting the information.

. An employer may ask employees with known disabilities if they will require assistance in an emergency.

More clarification urged

Employers need clearer guidance from the EEOC on how they can find out what assistance employees with disabilities may need, said Mike Aitken, director of governmental affairs with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), who testified at the meeting.

The EEOC has explained emergency response personnel can be notified in advance of the special needs of each employee with a disability, in spite of the ADA's strict rules about the confidentiality of medical information, he noted.

"As helpful as the guidance is, however, it is not sufficiently clear as to how much can be known by the co-workers who could assist in an emergency response," Aitken stated. Employers also face the challenge of how to facilitate the emergency evacuation of persons with hidden disabilities such as psychiatric conditions, he noted.

According to upcoming findings from SHRM's 2005 Disaster Preparedness Survey, 60 percent of HR professionals said their organizations have specific guidelines and/or equipment in place to help evacuate persons with disabilities in the event of a disaster.

"While the ADA does not specifically require employers covered by the Act to develop emergency preparedness plans for people with disabilities, if an emergency preparedness plan is put in place, employers must include people with disabilities," Aitken said.

He added that larger employers are more likely to have inclusive emergency preparedness plans, according to the survey: 83 percent of surveyed employers with 500 or more employees had inclusive emergency preparedness plans, compared with 64 percent of surveyed medium employers and 33 percent of small employers.

Drills recommended

National Taskforce on Fire/Life Safety for People with Disabilities co-founder Edwina Juillet said regular drills help identify individuals with hidden disabilities who may need assistance. At the U.S. Department of Agriculture, "they drill a lot and in their observations from the drills pick out people who have not self-disclosed" but are confused during the drills. These employees are delicately brought "into the fold," she said.

As much of a pain as it can be to have drills, emergency preparedness plans that succeed at including people with disabilities typically are tested, noted Brian Parsons, advisor for employer policy in the DOL's Office of Disability Employment Policy. He recommended employers:

. Talk with other building occupants as they draft their plans.

. Create a support network for employees with disabilities rather than rely solely on a buddy system.

. Evaluate assistive equipment individually in light of employee needs and space.

"Redundant, timely and effective communication at the time of an alert and prior to an emergency" are other effective practices, he observed.

Allen Smith, J.D., is senior legal editor for HR News.

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