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What Employers Need to Know to Establish Evacuation Plans for Employees with Disabilities

Article

The Employment and Labor Law Alert

December 21, 2001

After the tragedy of September 11, 2001, many businesses are developing or revamping emergency evacuation procedures in conjunction with a comprehensive emergency plan. Planning for the quick evacuation of all employees in the event of emergency requires employers to take affirmative steps to identify employees’ needs. For example, certain employees may require special assistance in evacuation due to a medical condition or disability. Employers, however, may be concerned that obtaining and utilizing certain information necessary to develop an effective evacuation plan may violate federal or state laws prohibiting disability discrimination and protecting employees’ privacy rights. The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has now issued guidelines for the development of emergency evacuation procedures for disabled employees. The guidelines, entitled Fact Sheet on Obtaining and Using Employee Medical Information as Part of Emergency Evacuation Procedures, focus on the employer’s identification of employees who may need assistance in the event of evacuation, and what information the employer may seek, use and disclose.

According to the EEOC, in the context of developing an evacuation procedure, an employer may specifically ask about any needs its employees have, advising the employees of the reason for the inquiry and of the voluntary nature of their responses. (This information should not, however, be sought prior to employment.) Employees should also be advised that the employer will, as with all medical information within the knowledge of the employer, maintain confidentiality of the information provided, to the extent it is not necessary to disclose that information to assist in the employee’s evacuation. The information provided by the employees need not detail specific medical conditions, but should be sufficient to allow the employer to identify any particular route, medication, equipment, device or other assistance the employee feels is necessary for his or her safe evacuation. Employee needs may be disclosed to medical professionals, company emergency coordinators and those responsible for ensuring and confirming safe evacuation, and co-workers who have volunteered to assist in evacuation.

In order to ensure that all employees are considered in planning an evacuation procedure, an employer should periodically ask all employees to identify any special evacuation needs they may have. An employer should also advise employees to update the company if their evacuation needs change, for example, due to a temporary or new condition. A written questionnaire, with a designated recipient for responses, is a simple, efficient way to begin the collating of information concerning employees’ evacuation needs. More specific information from those who have identified themselves as requiring employer assistance or special procedures is most likely best obtained through a conversation between the employee and the individuals developing the evacuation plan, as well as those persons in the employee’s building or area responsible for evacuation. Any finalization of procedures or arrangements made after this meeting should be communicated to the employee, and the location of any equipment or assistive device the company will provide (all of which should be maintained in a consistent, convenient and secured place) should be identified for the employee and the individuals responsible for evacuation. Finally, after the establishment of a company evacuation plan, employers should drill all employees on the evacuation procedure, including a trial run of those procedures in place for individuals with disabilities.

Although the recent tragic events in New York City and Washington D.C. highlighted the need for employee evacuation plans and the special needs of individuals with disabilities, employers have always been responsible for the safety of their employees while at work. Thus, employers should develop and circulate employee evacuation plans, if none exist, and update any existing plans in light of the recent EEOC guidelines. Employers seeking to develop emergency preparedness plans or requiring further guidance in obtaining and using employee information in connection with such plans should contact any of the attorneys in the Gibbons Employment and Labor Law Department.