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Emergency Preparedness and Disabilities: Getting All Employees Out Safely

When the first plane hit his building at the World Trade Center, Michael Hingson was on the 78th floor of Tower One. As mid-Atlantic manager for Quantum Corp., Hingson had encouraged employees to become familiar with the building's emergency procedures. Although many of the employees of Quantum worked off-site, Hingson required them to participate in at least one scheduled fire drill a year. So when the fire alarms began ringing, Hingson was as prepared as he could be.

Hingson, who is blind, had taken extra precautions for himself as well. He learned how to get to all of the stairwells from anywhere in the office. He asked a colleague to read him the emergency preparedness manual, and he made certain he knew the instructions on posted signs in hallways.

"We as disabled people will never be
safe in the workplace until we are
accepted in the workplace."
-- Michael Hingson

After making a harrowing trip down the stairs with the help of his guide dog, Roselle, and a colleague and running for his life when the towers collapsed, Hingson became a 9/11 survivor. He is now director of national public affairs of Guide Dogs for the Blind and an advocate of emergency preparedness for people with disabilities. 

"We as disabled people will never be safe in the workplace until we are accepted in the workplace," Hingson said at an Oct. 25 public meeting of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on emergency preparedness and people with disabilities.

Days after Sept. 11, Hingson said, he heard the suggestion that people with disabilities should not be allowed to work on any building above the first floor. Hingson's answer: he has no problem with that idea as long as no workplaces have more than one floor.

The meeting highlighted a number of issues that employers must deal with in order to meet their responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). What is the responsibility of employers to people with disabilities in an emergency? How should they best handle communications in an emergency? What should workplaces do about people with hidden disabilities? Should elevators be used in certain emergencies?

Legal responsibilities

Although employers are not required to have emergency plans under the Americans with Disabilities Act, if an emergency preparedness plan is in place, it must include employees with disabilities. 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. 

In October 2004, a jury in Louisiana awarded former DuPont employee Laura Barrios $1.29 million in a case filed by the EEOC under the ADA.

In the case, the EEOC asserted that DuPont violated the ADA when it fired Barrios, who has severe physical impairments, even after she passed a required functional capacity exam. DuPont had tested Barrios's ability to climb, stand for one hour, lift more than 20 pounds and do overhead work. 

DuPont used the test results to declare her as a direct threat to herself and others, saying she could not safely evacuate the plant in case of an emergency. The company put Barrios on short-term disability leave and then permanent disability retirement, which ended her employment with DuPont.

An EEOC lawyer argued that Barrios was qualified to perform her job and could safely evacuate the plant, even with her physical impairments. The jury agreed.

Andrew Imparato, president and chief executive officer of the American Association of People with Disabilities, cautioned at the EEOC meeting that companies should be careful not to overreact when an employee has a disability.

"If we are not careful, we may be giving people a reason not to hire people with disabilities," he said.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, both employers and the government are paying more attention to emergency preparedness and disaster plans that cover all employees. 

In the 2005 SHRM Disaster Preparedness Survey, 60 percent of human resources professionals responded "yes" to the question "Does your organization have specific guidelines and/or equipment in place to help evacuate persons with disabilities such as blindness or limited mobility in the event of a disaster?" 

At the October EEOC public meeting Michael Aitken, director of governmental affairs for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), said that the results of the data suggest that respondents who indicated "no" either do not have employees with disabilities or may be unaware of special accommodations or needs of employees with disabilities. 

Anne Hirsch, service manager of the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a U.S. Department of Labor-funded resource for information on job accommodations, said JAN has seen a post-Sept. 11 increase in calls about how to include employees with disabilities in emergency evacuation plans.

A 2004 EEOC order led to a series of changes
addressing disaster preparedness and
disabled government employee. 

In July 2004, President Bush signed an executive order directing the federal government to work with state and local governments as well as private organizations to address the safety and security needs of people with disabilities. The order has led to a series of changes within all levels of government addressing disaster preparedness and government employees with disabilities.

The EEOC meeting illustrates that the government has a stake in having employers increase their level of disaster planning for employees with disabilities as well. 

Developing the plan

To create an evacuation plan that covers all employees, JAN recommends asking employees whether they have limitations that will interfere with their ability to evacuate in an emergency. In a fact sheet on obtaining and using employee medical information as part of emergency planning, the EEOC says an employer has three ways of asking for information:

  • After making a job offer, but before employment begins, an employer may ask all individuals whether they need assistance during an emergency.
  • An employer may survey all 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
  • An employer 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 would need assistance.

Although the ADA requires employers to keep medical information confidential, first aid and safety personnel may be informed in an emergency, when necessary. Evacuation drills can help employers discover needs that even employees might not know exist. 

SHRM's Aitken said some employers face a dilemma when trying to set up the best disaster plans for all employees. Although commission rules allow an employer to share information about the type of assistance an individual needs in an evacuation, requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act make employers sensitive about protecting confidentiality of employee's medical information. 

Aitken recommended that "the EEOC explicitly state that all employees assigned to assist employees with disabilities in the event of an emergency may be told all details about an employee's disability that might be helpful in assisting that individual in an emergency." Employers should also consider that a number of health conditions could hamper employees in an emergency. 

In an April 2005 report on including people with disabilities in disaster planning, the National Council on Disabilities points out: "The term disability does not apply just to people whose disabilities are noticeable, such as wheelchair users and people who are blind or deaf. The term also 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."

One of the benefits of holding practice evacuation is that both employers and employees may identify potential evacuation problems and take steps to fix them before real emergencies arise. 

Edwina Juillet, co-founder of the National Taskforce on Fire/Life Safety for People with Disabilities, said the Food and Drug Administration, for example, has run a series of mock evacuations. During these run-throughs, she discovered a number of employees who may need additional help in an evacuation.

She said regular evacuation drills can help identify employees with hidden disabilities. 

Once companies understand employee's evacuation needs, they can set up accommodations. For example:

  • Emergency alarms and signs that signal emergency exit routes.
  • "Buddy” systems that help employees locate and assist each other.
  • Designated areas of rescue assistance.

Lessons from Hurricane Katrina: Going Beyond the Law

At the EEOC meeting, Daniel Sutherland, Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, spoke about the large numbers of people with disabilities who were left behind in the Gulf Coast region. 

He said 25 percent of people in Biloxi, Miss.; 24 percent in Mobile, Ala.; and 21 percent in New Orleans had disabilities prior to the storm. He added that when people in shelters were asked why they did not evacuate before Hurricane Katrina hit the region, 22 percent said they were physically unable and 23 percent said they had to care for someone who was unable to leave. 

EEOC Commissioner Stuart Ishimaru asked Sutherland whether the responsibility of employers extended beyond the workplaces. Once employees were out of the building, should an employer make sure they can get to a safe place?

Sutherland replied that the legal obligation for an employer did not extend "beyond the sidewalk" of the workplace, but employers might want to consider questions of how they could get people beyond the immediate problem area and then communicate with them once the disaster is over.

Making Your Workplace Disaster Plan Work

  • Have top-level management support.
  • Involve key stakeholders—work with first responders directly.
  • Realize needs related to each office space are different.
  • Make sure it's clear who has responsibility within a building.
  • Don’t rely on a single buddy system.
  • Individualize equipment.
  • Communication should be redundant.
  • Reconsider the use of elevators—plans may include vertical and horizontal evacuations.
  • Emphasize practice and drills.
Source: Office of Disability Employment Policy, Department of Labor


The Job Accommodation Network, a free consulting service of the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy. 1-800-526-7234, Accommodations; 1-800-232-9675, ADA Information.

Employers' Guide to Including Employees with Disabilities in Emergency Evacuation Plans,

Preparing the Workplace for Everyone, Accounting for the Needs of People with Disabilities, published by the Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness in the Workplace of the Interagency Coordinating Council on Emergency Preparedness and Individuals with Disabilities. July 2005. Copies available from the United States Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy (

Fact Sheet on Obtaining and Using Employee Medical Information as Part of Emergency Evacuation Procedures,

New Freedom Initiative Disability Direct,

Disability Resource Center,

Saving Lives, Including People with Disabilities in Emergency Planning, April 2005, National Council on Disability,

Elizabeth Agnvall is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.


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