The Importance of Considering People with Disabilities in your Health and Safety Procedures
by Tarryn Mason

As human beings, we are all entitled to a safe and healthy working environment. Legislation in the form of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (Act 85 of 1993) was written and passed by Parliament to address this matter. This Act aims to ensure the provision and maintenance of a safe and healthy work environment for all, including people with disabilities.

It is important to note that injuries at work can lead to permanent disability. The workplace is a more common source of disability for men than it is for women. Among Disability Insurance recipients, 45% of men and 26% of women acquire a disability through workplace accidents, injuries, or illnesses. In the USA, the annual cost of workplace injuries to Medicare and Social Security Disability Insurance is roughly $33 billion.

In addition, it is important to make special considerations when accommodating a person that may be a higher risk due to decreased mobility, hearing or vision for example. 

People with disabilities may need additional or alternative health and safety measures which are often not considered by employers. Tarryn Mason, Managing Director of Progression, explores some of the health and safety measures that should be implemented to ensure the safety of people with disabilities.

Evacuation

Evacuation procedures should take into account any specific or additional measures to ensure that an employee with a disability is safely evacuated from a building or work site during emergencies.

In many emergency circumstances, people are encouraged to use the stairs and avoid using lifts. However, that can present a problem for people who use wheelchairs or have difficulty walking. Thus, installing an evacuation chair should be a priority, especially in organisations where there are multiple stories or levels. An escape chair or evacuation chair is a device manufactured for the smooth descent of stairways in the event of an emergency. It is designed to carry people who use wheelchairs, crutches or do not have full use of their legs, down stairs in an emergency evacuation when the lifts are not working. However it is also important to remember that a Fire Marshall will also  have to be trained on how to use this safely.

Sirens should be accompanied by red lights in order to accommodate deaf people or people with hearing impairments. Should the person not be able to hear the emergency siren, a red light will alert them to the emergency. This will ensure that they are aware of what emergency procedures to follow and evacuate the building safely. In turn, an emergency siren will alert blind people or people with visual impairments should they be unable to see the emergency lights. Allocating a “guide” to a person who is blind or has visual impairments should also be considered. This “guide” should be a colleague that is situated relatively close to the person. Should an emergency arise, and employees are requested to evacuate, the guide will assist the person in safely evacuating the building. Having signs in Braille will also assist blind people or people with disabilities to navigate their way around the building.

Every organisation should ideally have an employee trained in:

  • evacuation techniques (all staff should be trained in the basic evacuation procedures)
  • use of, and assisting individuals with, mobility equipment and aids
  • instructions for individuals who use assistance animals
  • how best, in an emergency, to communicate with those who have a disability (e.g. sign language). 

Employees with Epilepsy should also be considered when putting together a company’s evacuation processes. Flashing lights can often trigger seizures in people with Epilepsy. Thus, avoid using too many flashing lights as an indication of an emergency. A constant red light is preferable.

Ensuring the office is clean and tidy will assist both people with and without disabilities in moving around the office safely and freely, minimising the chance of tripping and falling. In addition, people who have Epilepsy can injure themselves if they fall onto something when they are having a seizure. Thus, keeping the office clean and neat is essential.

Reasonable Adjustments or Accommodation

Employers have a duty to do everything that is reasonably practicable to keep all their workers safe from harm, and this includes employees with disabilities. Very often the employer would need to consider a combination of these adjustments.  

Below are some of the reasonable adjustments employers may need to consider in order to
ensure the health and safety of workers with disabilities.

Accessibility

The workplace should be easily accessible to all, including people who are in wheelchairs, people who have visual impairments, people who have limited mobility, etc. This will ensure employees can easily and safely enter and exit the building as and when needed.

Examples include: 

  • Ramps to the building. 
  • Having lifts available (with appropriate talking indicators/ Braille signage)
  • Ensuring that doors and corridors are the correct width to allow for wheelchairs
  • Ensuring doors and corridors are clear of trip hazards and clutter, particularly the spaces around desks and storage areas.
  • Ensuring surfaces are even and areas are well lit.
  • Ensuring that cables and telephone wires are not left lying across the floor but are tied up and concealed instead.  
  • Toilets that are accessible to people who make use of wheelchairs and are clearly indicated.
  • Automated doors will assist people with limited mobility to safely enter and exit the building.
  • Parking designated for people in wheelchairs that is close to the entrance of the building.

Working Environment

Everyone, including people with disabilities, is entitled to a safe working environment that is conducive to successfully carrying out the requirements of the job.

Examples of reasonable accommodations that will ensure a safe working environment for people with disabilities include:

  • All signage should also be present in Braille.
    • All health and safety and other important information should be provided in accessible formats, i.e. easy-read, large font, Braille, audio formats.
    • Non-slip, even flooring and steps.
    • Ensure door handles are at a reachable height for people in wheelchairs or for people of small stature.
    • You may consider relocating the worker to a more safe and suitable environment, for example moved from a factory/ warehouse to the administration department.

When entering an industrial site, it is common to see markings for personal protective equipment (PPE) such as hard hats, steel toe cap boots, protective eye or ear wear etc. 

There may be instances where standard PPE may not be suitable. Some environments require all employees to wear safety boots, however, if an employee has Post-Polio, for example, and uses callipers or a built up shoe to assist with mobility, adhering to these safety requirements may be very difficult or impossible. Due to increased risk, compulsory intervention may be necessary and the person should be restricted from accessing the environment.

Alternatively, the workplace may consider, as part of reasonable accommodation, specialised custom-made footwear that would allow the person to work in the space, or seek an alternative environment in which the employee may work. If no solutions can be found to safely accommodate the employee in the work environment, the person would be deemed unfit for the role, as they would not be able to perform any of the inherent requirements of the job.

In conclusion.

Ensuring that your Health and Safety procedures and systems consider people with disabilities in the workplace is crucial for their safety. There are a number of items and steps that can be easily implemented to ensure the workplace is safe for all staff members, including those with disabilities. All people are different and require different accommodations and safety measures. Thus, a “one size fits all” approach is not encouraged. It is the responsibility of employees with disabilities to inform their employer about a potential hazard as well as their right to ask for potential accommodation that can be implemented to make the workplace a safer environment for all.

Google+