Hurricane Sally recently hit and created havoc to parts of Alabama and the Florida panhandle. As of a few days ago, hundreds of thousands were still without power in the aftermath. And Tropical Storm Beta is currently heading towards the Texas Gulf Coast, threatening to bring more devastation. Meanwhile, out west, much of the west coast is either on fire, or under a cloud of smoke. What do these tragic things have in common? Evacuation orders. To save lives, emergency evacuation orders call for people to get out of harm’s way.
But what do you do when you are disabled and can’t evacuate? Some are temporarily disabled, maybe with a broken limb. Some disabilities are not as visible. Blindness, deafness, respiratory issues that limit physical abilities, arthritis, and mental illnesses are forms of disabilities you might not be able to see. Even age and pregnancies are factors that can limit the ability to evacuate an area during an emergency as well as increase the possibility for a medical emergency or incident.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that you must provide equal ability to access your facilities, and that you provide equal ability to evacuate during an emergency. Following are some things that you can do to help those with disabilities in your workplace when preparing your Emergency Action Plans, required by OSHA (29 CFR 1910.38). A planning guidebook can also be downloaded from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA); a link can be found on the lower right.
1. Talk to your employees. Those that have disabilities may be the best resource for the most effective method(s) for providing for their safe evacuation during an emergency. The Department of Labor (DOL) suggests that employers ask all employees, such as at an all staff meeting or by a mass all employee email, to self-identify if they have factors or conditions that would reduce their ability to safely evacuate during an emergency. These employees will know how they can be notified of the need for the evacuation. For example, those that are deaf might want to receive a text, or if texts are not possible, they may require someone to physically tap them on the shoulder, for example. Do not assume that someone with an obvious disability will need assistance. They may be quite capable of evacuating on their own. Let them tell you what they need.
2. An early step in the emergency planning process is to come up with effective notification systems. Loud alarms and verbal information such as shouting are effective for the visually impaired. Strobe lights and texting information with alarm systems may be more effective for the hearing impaired.
3. Make good use of the Buddy System. Co-workers can work with the less abled workers to ensure they can help them evacuate. And if the disabled cannot be successfully or fully evacuated, such as possibly sheltering in a stairwell, the “Buddy” can alert someone at the evacuation assembly area, so that rescuers can get back in to help the person out. Or the “Buddy” can assist the visually impaired out and to safety.
4. One disability that is often overlooked is color-blindness. If someone cannot distinguish colors exit and emergency signage may be less effective and indistinguishable. Learning about what colors are visible and ensuring that you have the appropriate signage will increase the ability for anyone with color blindness to evacuate safely.
5. TRAINING! Review the evacuation plans with your employees. This is an OSHA requirement that becomes even more important with people with disabilities. The more you practice the evacuation procedures for those less abled, the smoother and easier the evacuation process will be. That ensures all evacuate safely.