Meeting of October 25, 2005, Washington
D.C. on Emergency Preparedness and Individuals with Disabilities:
Is the Workplace Ready?
Chairwoman Dominguez, Vice Chair Earp, and Commissioners, thank you for this opportunity to speak at this public meeting on "Emergency Preparedness and Individuals with Disabilities: Is the Workplace Ready?" to provide recommendations to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC or Commission) in this area.
My name is Mike Aitken and I am the Director of Governmental Affairs for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). I appear today on behalf of SHRM, the world’s largest association devoted to human resource management. Representing more than 200,000 individual members, the Society's mission is to serve the needs of HR professionals by providing the most essential and comprehensive resources available. As an influential voice, the Society's mission is also to advance the human resource profession to ensure that HR is recognized as an essential partner in developing and executing organizational strategy. Founded in 1948, SHRM currently has more than 550 affiliated chapters and members in more than 100 countries.
SHRM members represent organizations of every size across all geographic areas of the United States. As human resource professionals, our members are at the forefront in developing and executing emergency preparedness and evacuation policies. The recent events in the Gulf Region, and now with Hurricane Wilma apparently headed for the Florida cost, have reminded us all of the importance of proper planning and implementation of an organized, structured, rehearsed, and well-executed plan to ensure that employees are able to safely escape from life-threatening situations at a worksite. SHRM and HR professionals are committed to promoting workplace safety, including the safe evacuation of employees with disabilities from work. We appreciate the opportunity to be here today to provide comments to the Commission in its examination of emergency preparedness and evacuation planning for employees with disabilities. SHRM commends the Commission for exploring this issue in such a timely and appropriate manner.
Since 2002, SHRM as an organization has had a Business Continuity Plan in place designed and structured to ensure a rapid, efficient recovery of critical business operations following a major disruptive event such as a natural disaster, terrorist attack, or other serious event. The first principle of our plan is to ensure employee safety and welfare. This effort includes a shelter-in-place program for circumstances where it is either unsafe for employees to exit the building or where an employees’ ability to evacuate the building is impeded. We also have an evacuation plan for employees to leave the building in emergency situations. From the beginning of our efforts to create our safety plan, SHRM identified and involved our employees with disabilities. In addition, SHRM’s commitment to our plan provides that we regularly review all facets of this plan so that it adequately addresses the changing landscape of our workforce; including identifying employees with existing disability conditions and ensuring their safety.
One of the key components in implementing our Business Continuity Plan is the First Responder Program. Our First Responder Program designates an employee on each department and floor of SHRM as a Floor Warden, who is responsible for making sure that everyone gets out of the building safely during evacuation, or into a Shelter-In-Place room as warranted by the emergency situation. Our First Responders are trained in the application of first aid and CPR, the handling of blood-borne pathogens in emergency situations, how to use our building evacuation chairs for employees with mobility issues, as well as how to assist other employees with a disability in an emergency situation. Once Floor Wardens have received initial training, the entire evacuation effort, including the specific evacuation protocols for employees with disabilities, is practiced.
We at SHRM, like others in the United States and around the world, are deeply moved by the images we saw in the media of the utter devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and again by Hurricane Rita. Soon after the Hurricane passed, we began to receive first-hand accounts from our members in the Gulf States as to the destruction caused by the storm. As a result, we believe we have the opportunity and responsibility to quickly and decisively respond to the needs of our members, whether directly or indirectly, who were impacted by the storm. We view this as a long-term commitment; the magnitude of the initial devastation and continuing ripple effect will be felt for months and years to come. The consequences of the storm have generated an enormous need for human resource professionals to play a leadership role in their organizations and communities in these rebuilding efforts.
One of the key elements of our response is to share vital information with our members, and the public as a whole, on the recovery and response efforts of the federal agencies and other sources. The SHRM Web site, www.shrm.org, and its special Hurricane Resource Page, www.shrm.org/issues/hurricane/, also contain information about preparing for the next emergency. This includes sample emergency evacuation policies and toolkits and links to other web sites, including to the Commission’s "Fact Sheet on Obtaining and Using Employee Medical Information as Part of Emergency Evacuation Procedures." We also provide a listing of resources for evacuations of employees with disabilities.
While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not specifically require employers covered by the Act to develop emergency preparedness plans for people with disabilities, if an emergency preparedness plan is in place, it must include people with disabilities. According to the soon-to-be- released, SHRM 2005 Disaster Preparedness Survey, 60 percent of human resource 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?" The results of the data suggest that respondents currently do not have employees with disabilities, or the employers may be simply unaware of any special accommodations or needs of employees with disabilities.
For example, some employees with disabilities will not desire or require special assistance during an emergency. In addition, there are employees with psychiatric disabilities who have not claimed protection under ADA. While employers should provide ample opportunities for employees to self-identify special needs or accommodations, an employee with a psychiatric disability may, because of the nature of the disorder, not be able to best state what accommodations are needed. This presents a challenge for employers in seeking to design emergency evacuation plans for employees.
As noted earlier, the EEOC has issued a Fact Sheet on using employee medical information to identify individuals who may need assistance in the event of an evacuation. However, because of the requirements of the Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act, and even the Commission’s own guidance, employers are highly sensitized to protecting the confidentiality of employee's medical information. The EEOC provides a handful of exceptions to this strict protection of confidentiality. One of them is that emergency response personnel can know, in advance, of the special needs of each employee with a disability. As helpful as the guidance is, however, it is not sufficiently clear as to how much can be known by the coworkers who could assist in an emergency response. In addition, to prepare adequately it is often suggested that employers assign at least two coworkers to each employee with a disability in an emergency so that if one is ill or otherwise absent, there is another coworker ready to assist.
However, employers need more certainty about what can be told to these coworkers. With visible disabilities, such as when an employee uses a wheelchair, this is not as complex an issue as with non-obvious disabilities such as epilepsy and psychiatric disabilities. Further, with psychiatric disabilities, knowledge of the specific characteristics of the disability and likely reactions of the person to stress is valuable. Although the Commission has stated rules that “allow an employer to share information about the type of assistance an individual needs in the event of an evacuation with colleagues who have volunteered to act as 'buddies'.” However, the rule continues “in most instances, it will be unnecessary for an employer to know the details of an individual's medical condition.” SHRM recommends 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.
Additionally, while we believe the EEOC has provided some helpful guidance through its fact sheet on medical information, we recommend that the Commission provide additional information and guidance to employers in establishing emergency preparedness plans for employees with disabilities. For example, the Commission could play a fundmental role in coordinating with the Department of Justice on technical assistance and coordination on “area of refuge” requirements under Titles II and III of the ADA. This includes explaining what employers and co-workers are obligated and/or required to do for mobility impaired employees.
We also suggest that the Commission coordinate with the different federal agencies that are involved in disaster preparedness, namely, the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and other agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Agency and the Office of Disability Employment Policy in the Department of Labor. This guidance should include developing interagency agreements or cooperation in the issuing of guidance to employers to ensure consistency and coordination in meeting the needs of individuals with disabilities. Lastly, the EEOC should continue to encourage employers to consult with employees with disabilities when creating an emergency preparedness plan as well as consistently review the plan to make sure it meets the needs the workforce.
SHRM appreciates the opportunity to be here today to provide comments to the Commission in its examination of emergency preparedness and evacuation planning for employees with disabilities. I would be happy to provide you with additional information or clarification of our comments.
This page was last modified on October 25, 2005.
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