Updated guidance for employers - employees with disabilities
The Health and Safety Authority (HSA) recently published its updated ‘Employees with Disabilities – An employer’s guide to implementing inclusive health and safety practices for employees with disabilities’. The guide, which was drafted in consultation with the National Disability Authority and other charitable bodies, addresses areas of safety in the workplace, occupational health as well as facilities management relating to the health, safety and welfare of employees with disabilities. Derek McKay, Managing Director, Adare Human Resource Management extracts the key considerations for employers.
Under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act, 2005, employers are responsible to ensure a safe workplace for all employees. And under the Employment Equality Acts, employers are obliged to reasonably accommodate people with disabilities and must take “reasonable measures” to meet the needs of employees with disabilities.
Workplace health and safety covers all stages of employment including the initial recruitment and induction processes.
It is estimated that one in nine people in Ireland have some form of disability, physical, visual, intellectual or sensory, with some having more than one. Therefore, a considerable proportion of the working population is affected in some way with a disability. About four out of five people with disabilities acquire their disability in adulthood, hence it makes sense for employers to plan and manage their health and safety on an inclusive basis. Employers are required to provide “reasonable accommodation” to allow people with disabilities access to employment, participate in employment and training. This includes actions such as adapting the workplace environment, work patterns and the distribution of tasks.
Some forms of disability are not immediately visible (for example, epilepsy, asthma, mental health conditions like depression or anxiety, neurological conditions like autism or someone who is deaf/hard-of-hearing). Often employees with a ‘hidden disability’ choose not to disclose their disability because they are concerned that their employer will focus on their disability rather than their ability.
If employees are not comfortable about disclosing a disability, their health and safety needs may not be identified and met. Disclosing a disability should remain a completely personal decision that only the employee should make, and some employees have completely valid reasons for not disclosing their condition. However, we must stress that not reporting their condition makes it more difficult for employers to identify and meet their health and safety needs, and can pose unintended, unforeseen health and safety risks to the workplace. It is good health and safety practice, therefore, to create a supportive, non-judgmental environment, and to communicate that to all employees. For example using the Customer Communications Toolkit available at http://universaldesign.ie.
Accommodating disability at work
Under the Employment Equality Acts 1998 and 2015, unless the costs of doing so are disproportionate, employers are obliged to take appropriate measures - known as ‘reasonable accommodation’. These measures enable people with disabilities to have access to employment, to participate or advance in employment and to undergo training.
Such measures may include training resources or adaptations to:
workplace premises in order to make them more accessible for employees with disabilities
patterns of working time, and
the distribution of tasks
Practical examples might include:
a talking lift with tactile floor buttons,
hands-free telephone set and alternative communication applications,
voice controls where available,
earlier or later start and finish times,
organising the distribution of work tasks in a team so that hard-of hearing staff members are not
expected to take minutes.
An employer is not obliged to provide any facility or treatment that employees can reasonably be expected to provide for themselves.
Creating an inclusive workplace
It is best practice when creating an inclusive workplace that employers and employees with a disability consult about their specific needs and requirements in order to ensure a safe and healthy environment.
It is also good practice to ask all employees at different times, such as during induction or annual review meetings, if they have any specific health and safety requirement, regardless of whether they have a disability. This helps create an inclusive culture within Organisations.
Safety Statements, which Organisations are legally required to have in place, should have considerations for particular risks for employees with disabilities. Considerations should include limited sight, hearing, dexterity or sensory conditions such as autism.
All health and safety policies and procedures should be reviewed regularly as a matter of course but specifically if there are employees with disabilities as their requirements may change over time due to their disability.
Safe evacuation of all employees
The safe exit or evacuation of a workplace can present challenges if there are employees with disabilities. Issues such as mobility impairment affecting the speed and range of movement, sensory impairment affecting sight and hearing, cognitive disability can affect how someone may process the urgency of an emergency situation. However, these challenges must be met.
Planning for the safe evacuation is critically important and there are some key steps outlined in the Guide, including:
Initial review of user needs, organisational practice and policies
Develop an egress policy for your Organisation
Plan for egress,
Implement your egress plan
Measure the performance of your egress plan
Review the performance of your egress plan
Consulting with employees with disabilities is important to help identify potential risks and hazards that could impede the safe evacuation of the workplace. Any information garnered from these consultations should be included in the Personal Emergency Egress Plan, which every Organisation should have. And, the plan should be reviewed, tested and updated regularly through evacuation drills.
The Guide also outlines some very useful “Dos & Don’ts” including:
DO recognise that your remit in terms of health and safety ‘duty of care’ is to all employees.
DO carry out risk assessments and develop control measures to minimise identified risk.
DO ensure an inclusive workplace where all employees’ needs are respected.
DON’T presume there is no one on your staff who is living with a disability. Many disabilities are not readily apparent and people may not have disclosed for a wide variety of reasons.
DON’T talk to an employee’s doctor about his or her needs without their worker’s consent.
All employers should familiarise themselves with the guidance and advice as well as making sure they are compliant with the relevant legislation.
To read the HSA Disability Guidelines 2021, please click here.