We often think of emergency preparedness in terms of our homes, but millions of us spend a significant portion of our lives at work. Many of us go to the same offices, factories, stores, and hospitals on a daily basis.
Employers and employees alike must plan for and prepare for work-related emergencies. Employers must have plans in place for worksite evacuation or sheltering, as well as procedures for communicating with anyone working (on-site or in the community), including permanent and temporary employees with disabilities.
Employees must also be personally prepared, especially if they have special needs due to a disability. In case they need shelter in place for a while, they may want to keep extra personal supplies, batteries, or items for service animals in their workplaces or vehicles. They can also participate in drills and contribute to the workplace planning process to ensure that their specific needs are met.
Employers of all types should have plans in place that address the needs of employees with known disabilities, as well as the possibility of employees with disabilities who haven’t disclosed.
While employers are not permitted to “fish” for information about hidden disabilities from employees, they can invite employees to voluntarily disclose disability information in order to discuss accommodations or assistance that may be required in an emergency.
Although some employees may choose not to disclose disabilities, inclusive plans can help ensure that employees, as well as visitors or customers, are safe in the event of an emergency.
If your building has a fire alarm system, are the alarms both audible (a loud siren or bell) and visible (bright, flashing lights) and cover all rooms and spaces, so that everyone in the building, including those with hearing disabilities, is notified?
Is there a communication procedure in your plan that can use various modes (voice, text) to help people keep track of what’s going on and make sure everyone is safe?
Is it possible to get out of the building if the evacuation routes are kept clear? Are there maps and signs to help people find their way?
How will people who can’t climb stairs be evacuated if getting out of the building requires the use of stairwells or elevators that shut down in certain situations (such as when the fire alarm goes off)? Where can they go to wait in relative safety until help arrives from emergency responders?
Do you have plans and procedures in place for emergencies or threats that aren’t fire-related (such as severe weather, chemical spills, and so on)? Is there any provision in your plan for sheltering in place in the event that evacuation is not possible?
Do you have specific people (and back-ups) in your plan who are in charge of various aspects of implementation (points of contact, etc.)?
Is information and appropriate training on emergency plans and procedures provided to all newly hired employees? Is updated information or refresher training provided to existing employees as needed? Is information and training provided to people with hearing, vision, learning, intellectual, or cognitive disabilities in a variety of formats and methods?
Are plans and procedures reviewed and updated on a regular basis? Is emergency equipment tested and maintained on a regular basis?
Do you test your plans and procedures with practice sessions or drills?
One of the most important aspects of any emergency plan is maintaining communication. Employees will receive timely information and will know where to go and what to do if all possible means and methods of communication are used between workers, managers, and emergency responders.
Redundancy, contrary to what our English teachers taught us, is not always a bad thing. All employees, including those with disabilities, will be kept informed by using a variety of communication modes to transmit and repeat information.
Equipment and technology backup systems can help compensate for power outages, equipment failures, or damage. Having a well-established “chain of command” and backup plans in place for employee task assignments can help compensate for human factors like employee absences or incapacity.
The majority of us would rather not think about the possibility of disaster. That’s understandable, but we’re failing to invest in our own futures if we don’t plan and prepare for it. Review and practice your workplace emergency plan if you have one. Start one now if you don’t already have one.