Identify Gaps in ADA Safety

12/01/2014 | By Jennie Morton

Are your emergency policies in compliance?

Worker receiving emergency communications

Imagine that Stephen Hawking, Helen Keller, Stevie Wonder, and Beethoven are all employees of your company. A fire alarm sounds and people need to evacuate, but how will these individuals receive emergency information and navigate your building to safety?

People with disabilities face a number of complications during a crisis. Those with visual and hearing difficulties may not be able to adequately receive emergency alerts. Individuals with mobility issues may require additional assistance to move out of harm’s way. Anyone with a speech limitation may need alternative ways to communicate, and those with cognitive impairments can benefit from simplified instructions. Each of these at-risk occupants is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

How ADA Applies to Building Owners

Have you read the full Americans with Disabilities Act? You may be surprised that the law doesn’t outline specific measures that are required in all buildings– there’s no checklist for wheelchair ramps, areas of refuge, visual notification appliances, hand railings, audible alarms, emergency lighting, stair descent devices, Braille signage, or egress widths. It’s up to property managers to determine which accommodations are necessary in their facility. Read on to understand the legal context for ADA and how it applies to buildings accessible to the public.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 provides “a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities.” It protects people with a range of impairments that affect major life activities, such as seeing, hearing, walking, standing, speaking, reading, communicating, and working.

According to the act, “a major life activity includes the operation of a major bodily function, including but not limited to functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.” The mandate does not apply to people with transitory impairments that occur for six months or less.

Reasonable Accommodations

While not a building code, ADA nonetheless acknowledges the economic impact property owners may need to shoulder to ensure all occupants have equal access. Occupants and visitors have a right to reasonable accommodations, which includes “making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.”

Discrimination can occur when there is “a failure to remove architectural and communication barriers that are structural in nature.” The language applies to new construction and alterations in public accommodations and commercial facilities.

Owners are required to make provisions unless they represent an undue hardship, meaning “an action requiring significant difficulty or expense.” Factors that could impose unattainable expectations may range from initial costs, financial resources of the liable entity, number of persons employed, effect of costs on resources, and facility type and location. Owners may also be exempt if they can prove it is “structurally impracticable” to make modifications.

In the absence of these obstacles, however, owners must make every effort to ensure individuals with vision, speech, mobility, hearing, and cognitive impairments can navigate their buildings with ease.

While ADA is a broad piece of civil rights legislation, its scope includes accessibility for any building open to the public. Most owners are aware it’s their responsibility to remove any structural obstacles that would impede someone from entering and navigating their building. But you’re also legally obligated to eliminate any barriers that could undermine a person’s safety during an emergency.

“The fact of the matter is that people with disabilities have significantly more difficulty accessing emergency information and safely traversing the built environment,” says Allan Fraser, senior building code specialist for NFPA. “Consider that one-fifth of the population has disabilities that qualify under ADA. Once you factor in children under 12 and seniors over 65, almost half of the population has a very real likelihood of needing assistance in an emergency. We need to empower these individuals with the right tools to ensure their safety.”

To comply with ADA and other accessibility standards, focus on provisions that improve notification, wayfinding, and navigation.

5 Common Oversights that Undermine Safety
Beyond design and construction, ADA considerations can fall to the back burner when it comes to operations. Unless you have an occupant with a disability, providing accommodations may not seem pressing. But this ignores the reality that an emergency can occur without a moment’s notice and a portion of your occupants may not have the protection they need.

The first step is to conduct a risk assessment. Just because you’ve received a clean bill of health from a building inspection doesn’t mean that you’re fully in compliance with ADA, says attorney Brian Muse, a partner at the law firm LeClairRyan. As there are a number of accessibility and life safety codes, ask a professional to help you evaluate your facility so nothing is overlooked.

“Go beyond a basic safety audit and specifically look for code compliance once a year,” recommends Chuck Wilson, executive director for the National Systems Contractors Association. “Work with a fire or life safety consultant, your local AHJ, or the integrator who conducts your system testing.”

Otherwise, ask HR to notify you when a new hire needs accommodations, suggests Muse. A major build-out, renovation, or change in your building population should also prompt a second look.
Despite the breadth of accessibility considerations, buildings usually fall short in a handful of areas. Review these five factors to see if your property might have a critical gap.

1) Limiting Mass Notification
You may test your fire alarms routinely, but how will a person who is deaf know there’s an emergency? What happens if you use your alarms for other crises, such as chemical spills, an active shooter, or a storm warning? Those with hearing impairments are at a disadvantage if they can’t distinguish what type of emergency is at hand or receive specific instructions on how to respond. The same could be said if you only use written messages – you may not be reaching those with vision loss.
“You don’t want to rely on a single means of communication,” says Dick Bauer, vice president of sales of NOTIFIER, a manufacturer of mass notification solutions. “You need multiple avenues to catch people’s attention.”

If your building is equipped with mass notification, evaluate the placement of devices. Many companies cover public spaces such as corridors and lobbies but neglect employee areas, notes Wilson. These are zones where audible and visual alarms could significantly expand your reach.

2) Overlooking Areas of Refuge
Do you have a tornado shelter, an assembly point in the parking lot, or rooms that convert to lockdown mode? You can direct people with impairments to these meeting spots, but what happens once they reach the area of refuge and need to wait until a situation is resolved? Owners should evaluate locations where people congregate in an emergency, says Bauer.

These include any areas that double as a safety zone, such as a gymnasium, cafeteria, auditorium, or assembly hall. These sites should have accommodations that address mobility and communication assistance, Wilson emphasizes.

3) Blocking the Path of Egress
Whether occupants need to shelter in place or evacuate the building, it’s imperative their path of egress is free of obstructions. Consider how disorienting an emergency can be – you don’t want the built environment adding to the chaos. Tactical and visual signage, properly marked exits, uncluttered corridors, and easy-to-open doors will ensure people can move without hindrance.

“Door clearances are a big one,” adds Fraser. “You have to have 18 inches between the edge of the door on the latch side and any wall or nearby objects. That way, a wheelchair can approach on the pull side and open the door freely.”

“If your building has automatic doors or push buttons, look at how they respond during lockdown mode. The ideal sequence should call for the sensors or push buttons to deactivate from the outside so an intruder can’t use them but remain in operation on the inside so the path of egress isn’t blocked,” notes Wilson.

4) Forgetting Evacuation Plans and Drills
Has it been over a calendar year since you ran a drill or updated your emergency plan? It’s critical you have current documentation for your life safety protocol, particularly as these procedures should outline provisions for individuals who require assistance, says Muse. For a checklist of accommodations, see sidebar on page 37.

While ADA doesn’t legally cover transitory disabilities, that doesn’t mean owners are off the hook from ensuring the safety of an occupant who’s temporarily impaired, says Wilson. Think about the student on crutches, the employee recovering from back surgery, or a worker who’s injured his or her hand. Even medical conditions such as asthma, pregnancy, and obesity can create mobility limitations that could warrant additional assistance. What about occupants who become impaired as a result of an emergency? What happens if someone’s ability to move or communicate becomes momentarily compromised?

Running drills and tabletop exercises is the only way to identify these life safety gaps before they put someone at risk. Also remember that exercises should cover a range of emergencies beyond fire, such as storm, earthquake, flood, biochemical, and active shooter.

5) Failing to Put Someone in Charge
If life safety is a direct responsibility of your department, make sure one of your team members is assigned to keep tabs on it. ADA isn’t a checklist that can be completed and then forgotten about, argues Muse – it’s something you should build into your facility’s operational practices.

“It’s incumbent upon each company to designate a safety officer who has ADA compliance in his or her scope of duties,” Wilson stresses.

Be careful of lease situations, adds Muse. While building owners have certain obligations, a tenant may make internal modifications that don’t satisfy ADA. Make sure the lease is clear who is ultimately responsible in those situations.

Solutions to Improve Emergency Response
One of the difficulties with ADA compliance is the lack of specifics in the law. Because it’s not a building code, there’s nothing in the mandate that will tell you which accommodations you are required to make.

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