Emergency Preparedness in the Workplace

Volume 19
Number 1

woman with plansWhen we think about emergency preparedness, we often focus on our home environments, but millions of us spend a good portion of our lives at work. Many of us go to work in offices, factories, stores, hospitals – the same places day after day. Others’ “workplaces” may change frequently but involve a limited number of familiar sites, such as the substitute teacher who works at several different schools in his community, or the attorney who routinely goes to the various court facilities in her area. Still others’ jobs may involve a great deal of traveling within a community, across the country, or around the world. Plumbers, performers, and paleontologists – not to mention drivers and delivery workers – are often on the move.

All of us, employers and employees alike, need to plan and prepare for emergencies at work. Employers need to have plans for worksite evacuation or sheltering in place, and procedures for communicating with anyone who may be working (on-site or in the community), including permanent or temporary employees with disabilities.

Employees need to be personally prepared, as well, especially if they have specific disability-related needs. They may want to keep extra personal supplies, batteries, or items for service animals in their workplaces or vehicles in case they need to shelter in place for a while. They can also contribute to the workplace planning process and participate in drills to ensure their unique needs are met.

Inclusive Plans

man using wheelchair

Employers of all types should have plans that take into account the needs of employees with known disabilities, as well as the possibility that there are employees with undisclosed disabilities in the workforce.

While employers are generally not allowed to “go fishing” for information from employees about hidden disabilities, employers can invite employees to voluntarily disclose disability information for the purpose of discussing accommodation or assistance that may be needed in an emergency. Some employees may still choose not to reveal disabilities, but inclusive plans can help ensure that workers, as well as visitors or customers, are safe in an emergency.

Questions for Employers

  • If your building has a fire alarm system, are the alarms both audible (a loud siren or bell) and visible (bright, flashing lights) which cover all rooms and spaces, so all building occupants, including those with hearing disabilities, are notified?
  • Does your plan include communication procedures that can utilize various modes (voice, text) to help people keep track of what is happening and make sure everyone is accounted for?
  • Are evacuation routes to get out of the building kept clear? Are there maps and signs posted to direct people?
  • If getting out of the building requires the use of stairs or elevators that shut down in certain situations (such as when the fire alarm is activated), how will people who can’t climb stairs be evacuated? Where can they go to wait in relative safety until emergency responders arrive to help them?
  • Do you have plans and procedures for emergencies or threats other than fire (severe weather, chemical spills, etc.)? Does your plan address sheltering in place for situations where evacuation is not an option?
  • Does your plan designate specific individuals (and back-ups) who are responsible for various aspects of implementation (points of contact, etc.)?
  • Are all newly hired employees given information and appropriate training on emergency plans and procedures? Are existing staff given updated information or refresher training as needed? Is information and training given using various formats and methods to accommodate people with hearing, vision, learning, intellectual, or cognitive disabilities?
  • Are plans and procedures periodically reviewed and updated? Is emergency equipment routinely tested and maintained?
  • Do you hold practice sessions or drills to test your plans and procedures?


workers pack and seal boxes

Maintaining communication is one of the most critical components of any emergency plan. Using every possible means and method of communicating between workers, managers, and emergency responders will help ensure that employees get timely information and know where to go and what to do.

Despite what our English teachers told us, redundancy is not always a bad thing. Using a variety of communication modes to transmit and repeat information will keep all employees, including those with disabilities, in the loop. Having back-up systems for equipment and technologies can help compensate for power outages, equipment failures, or damage. Having an established “chain of command” and back-up plans for employee task assignments can help compensate for human factors such as the absence or incapacity of individuals in the workplace.

Most of us prefer not to dwell on the possibility of disaster. That’s understandable, but if we don’t plan and prepare for it, we fail to invest in our own futures. If you have a workplace emergency plan, review and practice it. If you don’t have one, get started today.

For more information and training resources to help ensure that youremergency plans and preparations are inclusive, visit the “emergency preparedness and evacuation” section on our resources page.

This is a publication of the Mid-Atlantic ADA Center funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research of the U.S. Dept. of Ed. (Grant # H133A110017). The opinions contained in this publication are those of the grantee and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Education.

© 2015 TransCen, Inc.