Are You Prepared to Evacuate Your Workers with Disabilities?

By Ed Sterrett, CPP September 25, 2013

An emergency action plan covers designated actions employers and employees must take to ensure employee safety from fire and other emergencies. Although employers are not required to have emergency evacuation plans under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), if employers covered by the ADA opt to have such plans they are required to include people with disabilities. Further, employers who do not have emergency evacuation plans may nonetheless have to address emergency evacuation for employees with disabilities as a reasonable accommodation under Title I of the ADA. In addition, employers in certain industries ​may have obligations to develop emergency evacuation plans under the Occupational Safety and Health Act or under state and local law.

Developing a Plan

The first step for including employees with disabiliti​es in emergency evacuation plans is plan development. Plan development begins with identifying accommodation needs. One of the best ways to identify accommodation needs is to ask employees whether they have limitations that might interfere with safe emergency evacuation. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has guidance that discusses what information employers are allowed to gather when developing an emergency evacuation plan.

According to this guidance, there are three ways that an employer may obtain information:

  • After making a job offer, but before employment begins, an employer may ask all individuals whether they will need assistance during an emergency.
  • An employer also may periodically survey all of its current employees to determine whether they will require assistance in an emergency, as long as the employer makes it clear that self-identification is voluntary and explains the purpose for requesting the information.
  • Finally, whether an employer periodically surveys all employees or not, it may ask employees with known disabilities if they will require assistance in the event of an emergency. An employer should not assume, however, that everyone with an obvious disability will need assistance during an evacuation. For example, many individuals who are blind may prefer to walk down stairs unassisted. People with disabilities are generally in the best position to assess their particular needs.

The ADA requires employers to keep all medical information confidential. However, first aid and safety personnel may be informed, when appropriate, if the disability might require emergency treatment or if any specific procedures are needed for emergency evacuations.

In addition to requesting information from employees, employers might want to hold mock evacuation drills to help identify needs that employees are unaware of; conduct hazard analyses to help identify hazards specific to the workplace; develop a method to identify visitors with special needs; and contact local fire and police for guidance. Especially in large communities, these emergency responders may have special equipment and procedures already in place to assist people with disabilities.

Fire departments in particular encourage businesses to include them in periodic drills, especially when people with disabilities are involved. Not only does it give the business valuable guidance and means to improve, but it also provides hands-on experience to the rescuers for evacuation of workers with disabilities.

General Accommodations

Notification and Direction. Employers should have emergency alarms and signs showing the emergency exit routes. These alarms and signs should be accessible and maintained in proper working order. Additionally, employers should install lighted fire strobes and other visual or vibrating alerting devices to supplement audible alarms. Lighted strobes should not exceed five flashes per second due to risk of triggering seizures in some individuals. Employers should install tactile signage and maps for employees with vision impairments. Braille signage, audible directional signage and pedestrian systems are also available. These products may benefit other people who must navigate smoke-filled exit routes.

Designated assistance. During a workplace evacuation or fire drill, employees with disabilities should be assisted by one or more assigned designated assistants. It’s the job of designated assistants to help disabled employees to the nearest exit that leads outside of the building, to the nearest stairwell, or to another safe area to await evacuation by the fire department. If two designated assistants are present, one should report the location of the individual with a disability to an emergency monitor for evacuation by emergency personnel, if necessary. If only one assistant is present, he or she should remain with the individual and have another employee inform the monitor of their location.

Areas of Refuge. Employers may want to designate areas of rescue assistance. If a stairwell must be used, once inside, the assistant and disabled employee should move against the wall and wait for the flow of traffic to stop. If the disabled employee cannot be safely evacuated down the stairwell, they should remain in the area of refuge until an all-clear message is received or they are assisted from the building by emergency response personnel. If a designated area of refuge does not have escape routes, they should have:

  • An operating phone, cell-phone, TTY 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.
  • A window and something to write with or a “help” sign to alert rescuers that people are in this location.
  • Respirator masks.

Firefighters and rescue personnel always proceed initially to the area of greatest risk to systematically perform search and rescue operations.

After effective accommodations are chosen, employers should decide who will be involved in implementing the evacuation plan, commit the plan to writing and share it with employees for feedback, practice the plan to make sure it works, and modify the plan as needed. It is of great importance to seek feedback and ideas from people with disabilities. They will be able to provide the most useful feedback and ideas for improvement.

Visitors with Disabilities

Because visitors with disabilities will not have assistants assigned to them, the host employee should assume the role of designated assistant. Monitors should ensure that all areas on the floor, including restrooms, are thoroughly checked for any individuals with disabilities.

Ed Sterrett, CPP, is a professional safety and physical security consultant and founder of Central Florida Safety Academy, based in Orlando.

Republished with permission © 2013 Ed Sterrett.

Quick Links:

SHRM Online ​Safety & Security page

Keep up with the latest Safety & Security HR news


Hire the best HR talent or advance your own career.


HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.