AUTHOR: Kevin Carr

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Return to Office Impacts for People with Disabilities

As 2022 begins, COVID-19 continues to disrupt office schedules across the world. Employees are continuing to work remotely in many areas or may have adopted part-time or hybrid work schedules. Those that have returned, or are planning do so, may find that the buildings they left during the pandemic have changed in new and significant ways. These changes can have profound life safety implications, particularly for people with disabilities. As discussed in a blog post in 2020, an estimated 61 million Americans identify as being a person with a disability. These individuals come from all walks of life and provide impactful contributions to the community and organizations alike. It is important to note that people with disabilities are afforded specific legal protections, most notably via the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). As such, great care needs to be taken to ensure that any building changes, pandemic-related or otherwise, are in adherence with these protections, as well as adopted fire and life safety codes. To illustrate some of the potential impacts of building changes, let’s examine what a hypothetical “return to the office” might look like. Please note: your work situation may differ, so it is important to contact your organization for clarification and specific guidelines. Building entry The return to the office often begins at the entrance, where some significant changes may have occurred. Many buildings may now require COVID screening, contactless sign in, or other types of check-in/security processes before admittance to the work area is permitted. These processes often occur in the building lobby, and as a result, can pose several challenges for the disability community. Some important questions to consider for these areas might be: Are reception and security areas staffed? If not, how would a guest be able to gain assistance with entry? Are required outside doors arranged to accommodate people with disabilities? Are check-in processes (and technologies) able to assist everyone? Are egress arrangements in the lobby (and building) free and clear of obstruction? See here for an NFPA Blog post on this topic. Have building directories and directional signage been updated to account for relocations and moves within the building? This can help to reduce unnecessary travel in locating the intended party. Getting to the work area Once any check-in/security procedures are finalized, the journey to the work area might be next. Work areas are often reached via corridors, elevators, and stairwells. These areas are often highly traveled and may have undergone changes to account for health and safety concerns. Some important questions to consider for these areas might be: Are fire doors properly latched and secured? See here for an NFPA Blog post on this topic. Have accessible door controls been verified to be in working operation? Have elevator emergency phones been tested to ensure they are working properly? Are vision panels in fire doors free and clear of excess signage and instructions? Have alcohol-based hand sanitizer stations been installed in the correct locations to not reduce corridor widths? Work area Upon arriving at your work area, you may be in for some surprises. Many organizations have kept traditional office/cubicle arrangements, while others may be utilizing alternative arrangements, including “hoteling” stations. Hoteling can take many different forms but could include desk/cubicle sharing (based on hybrid work schedules, for example). Seating may be spaced out to accommodate health protocols and may be in new areas to reflect needed space to accommodate all employees. Some important questions to consider for these areas might be: Have paths of travel remained accessible for all to access and egress their work areas? For example, have new aisleways been created by a new arrangement? Do special accommodations for people with disabilities need to be considered? For example, does a new arrangement need to be modified to align with a person’s specific needs? Are meeting rooms able to accommodate people with disabilities? Has signage been updated to reflect current configurations? Building exit Finally, whether leaving the building for an emergency, or simply at the end of the workday, the exit remains a vital component for all occupants. Exits are an integral part of any buildings egress system and needs to be carefully maintained. Some important questions to consider for these areas might be: Has access to the exit been restricted in any way? This could be inside the building, or outside, as it leads away from the building. Have fire alarm systems been inspected and tested? See here for an NFPA Podcast entitled “What If You Can’t Hear the Sounds of Fire Safety" Have areas of refuge been reviewed to ensure they are free and clear of obstruction? If provided, have two-way communications systems been verified to be in working order? If provided, have emergency stair travel devices been checked to ensure they are operational? Final thoughts As outlined in the examples above, returning to the office can pose some unique challenges. Navigating these effectively will require several components, but perhaps none more important than creating a detailed plan and an effective communication strategy. Therefore, it is imperative that people with disabilities are included in these processes, as their knowledge, insight, and perspective will help to ensure that any plans developed are relevant, timely, and effective for all.   Finally, be on the lookout here for a new NFPA resource to assist with evacuation planning for people with disabilities, expected later in 2022. Stay healthy, stay inclusive, and stay safe! Important Notice: Any opinion expressed in this blog is the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the official position of NFPA or its Technical Committees. In addition, this piece is neither intended, nor should it be relied upon, to provide professional consultation or services.
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People with disabilities, buildings and COVID-19: 5 steps to ensure accessibility for all

In the past several months COVID-19 has impacted the globe with significant health, safety and economic challenges. Unfortunately, these challenges have, at times, disproportionately impacted those within the disability community. According to the CDC, there are an estimated 61 million Americans who identify as being a person with a disability. This vibrant community is made up of individuals across all walks of life, covering every demographic and socioeconomic status. Yet, despite these numbers, and legal protections in place (more on that below), the impact COVID-19 has had on this vulnerable population is profound. News articles and blog posts tell individual stories that chronicle the loss of essential services, difficulty in accessing buildings, lack of planning and communication, and in some cases, marginalization. Given this, how can building owners, facility managers, and others ensure that people with disabilities are respected, included in the planning process, and provided the required and appropriate safeguards? Please see below for five practical areas for consideration that may help navigate these challenges. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Other Codes It is important to remember that people with disabilities are afforded rights and protections under federal law. Since its landmark adoption in 1991, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has provided both the legal framework and design standards criteria to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities in everyday activities. Many states, as well as local jurisdictions, may also have requirements that mirror or exceed the ADA, so you will want to ensure compliance with those as warranted. Because the ADA is federal law it generally cannot be waived or reduced by local officials. Finally, unless directed by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), the provisions of adopted building, fire and life safety codes remain in force, even during COVID-19. Please consult your AHJ for specific requirements. Emergency Action Plans (EAP) These plans have many names but all provide a basic framework for building occupants to know what to do in the event of specific emergencies. These plans should include and address considerations for people with disabilities. Building owners and facility managers should ask the following questions: Is your EAP up to date? Is contact information for staff and vendors current? Have egress routes or other important building systems changed over the past few months? When was the last fire drill or emergency evacuation drill? Should your EAP need a refresh please see NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, section 4.8 for specific requirements. Another great resource is the Emergency Evacuation Planning Guide for People with Disabilities, published by the NFPA Disability Access Review and Advisory Committee (DARAC). This guide can be a useful tool to help bring essential needs and considerations to light. Building Entries Many buildings have adjusted their entries and lobbies to now require such features as staggered entry, mask deployments and temperature checks. How have these important and pragmatic changes taken people with disabilities into account? The following questions should be considered: Are entries free and clear of obstruction? Is the entry accessible for those using wheelchairs or other mobility devices? Can reasonable accommodations be made to assist people with disabilities? Have staff been trained to provide information and assistance where needed? Finally, are there opportunities to promote inclusiveness? One interesting article shows how the wearing of opaque masks has become a communication barrier for people who must read lips. When employees assisting these customers wore transparent face masks these barriers were instantly removed. Maintaining Egress A bedrock principle of life safety is maintaining free and unobstructed egress at all times, and COVID-19 is no exception. As my colleague Greg Harrington wrote in a blog post geared toward business occupancies, “there is no justifiable reason for locking egress doors or otherwise compromising means of egress…”. So I will ask the question: are your means of egress available for use by all occupants, including people with disabilities? Are egress doors, corridors, exits and stairwells free and clear of obstruction? Has signage been provided in accessible formats to relay important information related to the building's COVID-19 changes and updates? Are accessible means of egress available and ready for use if needed? A simple building tour may help to reveal and remedy many of these issues. Temporary Structures (Tents) The use of temporary structures, and especially tents, have been prevalent in many occupancies during the pandemic. Whether found in a health care setting (for patient screening), a mercantile occupancy (outdoor markets or retail) or a mercantile/assembly arrangement (outdoor dining), these structures present life safety challenges. Additionally, even with the best of intentions, they could introduce unintended consequences for staff and visitors alike. As my colleague Shawn Mahoney wrote, these structures have precautions that must be taken to ensure that fire and life safety is observed. Some questions to consider when planning for people with disabilities in these structures are: Are exits accessible? Are there any elevations that might pose a challenge to people with disabilities? Is the public way free and clear of obstruction for those who may utilize a sidewalk? Have staff been trained on what to do in the event of an emergency? Answering these questions will ensure that people with disabilities can navigate these structures safely, and importantly for business owners, to return for potential repeat business. For example, if there are minimal and reduced width entries/exits, tables arranged to not provide an adequate turning radius, and only high tables present, how could a person that utilizes a wheelchair, or other mobility device, frequent this establishment? In closing, I believe that one thing that the Novel Coronavirus has reinforced is the need for inclusion and care for those around us. We are all in this together. As you walk around the buildings where you work, live or visit please remember to keep these questions at the forefront. This will allow buildings to truly be accessible for all, even during these unprecedented times. Stay healthy, stay inclusive, and stay safe! For the most up to date information from the NFPA regarding fire and life safety in the midst of COVID-19, be sure to check out https://www.nfpa.org/coronavirus.
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Demobilizing buildings under construction, alteration or demolition during COVID-19 construction shutdown

COVID-19 is having an immediate and drastic impact on the construction industry with job sites being abandoned and workers being furloughed. A byproduct of these unprecedented pandemic-related changes has been the demobilization of construction/alteration/demolition sites. Authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs), contractors, installer/maintainers, facility managers and owners find themselves assessing appropriate steps to safeguard job sites and comply with local requirements. To help, NFPA has released a tip sheet called Construction Site Safety During Emergencies. The new at-a-glance-guidance is designed to help parties implement the appropriate steps to maintain safety while complying with local requirements that are in effect now and may apply during future emergencies. The tip sheet draws on the best practices found in NFPA 241, Standard for Safeguarding Construction, Alteration and Demolition Operations. While NFPA 241 is not specifically intended for demobilization efforts, the standard provides time-tested benchmarks for the building and enforcement communities as they strive to keep construction sites safer during any phase of work. The new resource centers around three critical questions: What existing conditions are currently onsite? What key requirements should be considered? How do these buildings properly resume operations when cleared to do so? The guidance zeroes in on existing conditions found on job sites; the questions that should be asked and answered; the sections in NFPA 241 where information can be found; and other pertinent considerations. It emphasizes the importance of developing a Fire Safety Program that prioritizes good housekeeping, onsite security, fire protection systems, rapid communication and protection of existing structures; and underscores the need for a Fire Prevention Program Manager (FPPM) who will successfully carry out the Fire Safety Program with particular attention on fire protection devices, inspections, and impairments. The new tool reminds members of the built environment to keep in mind that when government, building or fire officials announce that construction/alteration/demolition can resume – it is important to keep in mind others who may need to be considered such as federal, state, and local authorities, or certain insurance providers. In addition to using the new tip sheet and taking a deeper dive via NFPA 241, consider using the downtime you may have these days to find out more about building under construction fires. My colleague Richard Campbell just published an updated version of the Fires in Structures Under Construction or Renovation report that looks at these types of fires, and includes, among other things: Leading causes of fires and the direct property damage that resulted Timing of fires, both in calendar months and time of day Leading items that first ignited in structures Types of heat sources that caused fires In recent weeks, NFPA has provided a wide range of resources that support fully operational fire and life safety systems as required by the applicable codes and standards while balancing the realities of the current pandemic. Our goal is to support you and your work with useful resources and communications during this difficult time. How are we doing? How else can we help? Take our short survey and tell us what you think.
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NFPA Offers Resources for Conducting Remote Video Inspections (RVI) when Access to Buildings is Limited

While remote video inspection (RVI) is new to many, it can represent an effective alternative to an on-site inspection, enabling one or more parties to remotely perform an inspection of a building or building component. As code officials, enforcers, and inspectors work to ensure building safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, NFPA has created a fact sheet that provides guidance on how to conduct an RVI.  This new resource, which is based on “Conducting Remote Video Inspections,” a white paper developed by NFPA's Building Code Development Committee (BCDC), addresses several considerations, including setting clear expectations, selecting technology, location verification and sign-offs/follow-up. We encourage jurisdictions to review this guidance to become more familiar with the benefits as well as the limitations of RVI.  Just like traditional on-site or in person inspections, an RVI is typically associated within a jurisdiction's permitting process, the project, or contract schedule, and needs to be approved by AHJ. Remote inspection may be able to accomplish critical and emergency permit work that is still underway. It is not intended to be less complete than an on-site inspection and can be employed to achieve the same (or enhanced) results as an on-site inspection.  RVI is currently in use in select jurisdictions across the US, although no formal standard governs its use. These jurisdictions often utilize everyday smartphone technologies to facilitate the inspection.  In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, NFPA has been continuing to provide key resources and information that address emergency planning, building, fire and life safety issues. Make sure to check our website regularly for new content and updates. Stay safe.

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