The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Meeting of October 25, 2005, Washington D.C. on Emergency Preparedness and Individuals with Disabilities:
Is the Workplace Ready?

Remarks of Anne E. Hirsch, Associate Manager:
Job Accommodations Network

Good morning Madam Chair, Members of the Commission and distinguished visitors:

I am here today to share the experiences of the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) as they relate to emergency preparedness and individuals with disabilities in the workplace.

JAN is a free resource for information regarding job accommodations and Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and is sponsored by the US Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). JAN is located at West Virginia University in Morgantown, WV, but serves the entire United States via toll-free telephone lines and e-mail. JAN has been in operation since 1984. The service is free of charge to anyone, but the majority of inquiries come from employers and individuals with disabilities or limitations in doing a job.

History has shown that planning for emergency evacuation dramatically increases the chance of successful evacuation. This was clearly illustrated by the experiences of some from the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC) building in NYC. An individual working for the Port Authority on the 68th floor had also been working for the same office during the WTC bombing in 1993. After that incident, the employer developed an emergency evacuation plan that included the purchase of an evacuation chair. On 9/11, this worker was transferred to the evacuation chair and was safely evacuated from the 68th floor. 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.

Interest in emergency evacuation planning has increased since the September 11 terrorist attacks. In response, the Job Accommodation Network began receiving more calls from employers about their obligation to develop emergency evacuation plans and how to include employees with disabilities in such plans. This presentation addresses what employers and people with disabilities have been asking JAN about emergency evacuation, what prompted the employer or individual to ask the question(s), and steps for including people with disabilities in emergency preparedness planning.

Prior to 9/11, employers and individuals primarily were calling about evacuation issues for individuals with motor or mobility impairments, with a small percentage asking for information concerning sensory impairments. The majority of these cases were related to a specific employee need. Many of these reported a particular incident that had prompted the inquiry to JAN. Such incidents included a fire or tornado drill that failed, a broken elevator leaving a worker who uses a wheelchair stranded in the building, or perhaps office relocation to a multi-story building. Only 3.5% of the calls related to motor or mobility impairments were inquiries about general plans and not specific to an individual employee.

JAN call volume specific to emergency evacuation issues more than doubled immediately after the events of 9/11. The nature of the questions changed as well. Cases now involved questions related to psychiatric, sensory, and motor impairments. A review of the data shows that there was a dramatic short-term jump in accommodation evacuation questions related to psychiatric issues. These have since tapered off, but now remain at a constant level. Callers (both employers and individuals) were asking not only for accommodation information for specific situations and general plans, but were asking what the law required them to do.

Whether mandatory or voluntary, many employers develop emergency evacuation plans. In September 2001, JAN developed a publication titled "Employers’ Guide to Including Employees with Disabilities in Emergency Evacuation Plans." This publication references and links to many of the excellent resources you are hearing about today. In addition, the document reviews the steps for including employees with disabilities in effective emergency evacuation planning.

Effective planning should include (1) plan development, beginning with identifying accommodation needs; (2) plan implementation, focusing on distribution of information to employees; and (3) plan maintenance, which addresses developing relationships with emergency personnel and periodically updating training materials. The Employers Guide includes ideas on accommodations for individuals with motor, sensory, cognitive, psychiatric, and respiratory impairments.

In 2002, JAN entered into an agreement with the University of Iowa’s Law, Health Policy, and Disability Center (LHPDC) to conduct an updated and scientifically rigorous study of employers, individuals with disabilities, and others using JAN’s services. In December 2003, the LHPDC started making calls to JAN users who agreed to participate at the time of calling JAN. Preliminary data from this survey were released in September 2005. A closer examination of cases related to emergency evacuation shows that employers are implementing plans and involving individuals with disabilities in those plans. This study has just started to provide specific information about the outcome of cases from employers who contacted JAN about accommodations for emergency evacuation. So far, JAN has received data from seven cases. Four of these cases were related to specific employee situations and three were related to company-wide policies. Only six weeks after talking to JAN, five of the seven employers had decided on an accommodation related to emergency evacuation with four of those implemented and one pending. In all four instances where the accommodation had already been implemented, the employer reported that the accommodation involved formal or company education of co-workers.

We know employers continue to need information about emergency evacuation and other emergency preparedness issues. JAN is starting to receive accommodation inquires related to Hurricane Katrina as employees return to work or have been displaced to a different employment situation. We expect to see another spike in emergency evacuation inquiries as employers are once again alerted to the need for advance planning.

It is important that employers and individuals contacting JAN are asking about emergency evacuation planning. Other emergency preparedness issues such as shelter-in-place plans are not in the current line of questioning posed to JAN.

Emergency preparedness information related to accommodations is a refined discipline that involves completing research on preparedness-related equipment and methods, making emergency preparedness a normal part of the workplace culture, and ensuring that training materials make accommodation requests effective. Individuals need to know their responsibility in preparing and planning for emergency situations. It is clear to us that both employers and individuals need to have continued access to accurate and concise information to assist in the planning for all types of emergency situations.

Respectfully submitted by:
Anne Hirsh, Associate Manager
Job Accommodation Network.

This page was last modified on October 25, 2005.

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