In making emergency evacuation plans, employers must take particular notice of the needs of their disabled workers–some of whom may have undisclosed or temporary disabilities–according to participants in a June 7 roundtable discussion sponsored by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The panel members, who included representatives of large and small employers, a disability consulting firm, and the Department of Homeland Security, concurred that a comprehensive evacuation plan must address the needs of disabled employees.
EEOC Commissioner Christine Griffin, who moderated the discussion, and David Sutherland, civil rights officer for the Department of Homeland Security, both said the issue has received increasing attention since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and, more recently, Hurricane Katrina.
Sutherland, who heads an interagency coordinating council addressing emergency preparedness for the disabled, said there has been “tremendous movement and interest” on the concerns in both the public and private sectors since last October.
The council, established under a July 2004 Executive Order, has a Web site providing practical information on how people with and without disabilities can prepare for an emergency and including information for emergency planners and first responders to help them to better prepare for serving people with disabilities (http://www.disabilitypreparedness.gov <http://www.emergencypreparedness.gov> ).
Differing Needs Call for Specific Plans, Manager Says
The accommodation needs of the disabled are “complex and very different,” observed Patty O’Sullivan, the global disability manager for Agilent Technologies in California. In order to develop a comprehensive emergency evacuation plan, an employer must be aware of those needs and establish “disability-specific procedures,” she said.
O’Sullivan added that involvement of the disabled employees at both the development and implementation stage of any plan is particularly important, as is input from human resources, security, and local government. “It’s critically important that everyone has an emergency preparedness role,” she said.
“Proactive companies need to continuously reach out” to their disabled employees, said Kevin McGuire, a disability accessibility consultant, and every employee needs the “basic skills” to be able to assist a disabled co-worker, in the case of an emergency. The issue of emergency evacuation should be a mandatory subject during employee orientation, he maintained.
Dr. K. Andrew Crighton, the chief medical officer of Prudential Financial, said that his company develops an individual plan for the evacuation of every disabled employee, which includes two volunteers to assist in their evacuation. The plans are stored in several places, including at the facility’s front desk, he said.
In addressing the safe evacuation needs of their disabled employees, employers need to be concerned about hidden and temporary disabilities, Crighton added. Employees “may be hesitant to come forward,” he said, citing the example of an employee with asthma, working on an upper level floor, who faced difficulty in making a lengthy descent by stairs.
Prudential also holds mandatory evacuation drills each year. “We can never be too complacent,” Crighton said.
EEOC addressed the same topic during an October 2005 meeting (206 DLR A-1, 10/26/05 <http://pubs.bna.com/ip/bna/dlr.nsf/5f64d1a440715be485256b57005ac7d2/6215a3b431ca42ca852570a6000896bd?OpenDocument> ) and also has issued a fact sheet with employer guidance on obtaining and using employee medical information during emergency evacuation plans (available on EEOC’s Web site at http://www.eeoc.gov/facts/evacuation.html).
The agency scheduled the roundtable discussion as part of a “continuing dialogue” and to encourage more participation from private employers, said Chair Cari Dominguez