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Accessibility Standards Prioritize Safety

Earliest Compliance Deadlines Set for January 2012

By Barbara Carss
April 27, 2011

Building owners and employers face a couple of imminent deadlines for complying with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) even though most requirements for the private sector will be phased in over a longer period. This could also entail some guesswork for building owners who will
need to provide public safety information since the guidelines for accessible signage are in a separate regulation that isn’t yet publicly available.

Accessibility standards relating to information/communications and employment are nearing final form and are expected to come into force through the Integrated Accessibility Regulation later this spring or summer. (That regulation will also include a standard for transportation.) The draft version, which was released
for public comment earlier this year, sets a January 1, 2012 deadline for all obligated organizations to address emergency procedures, plans and public safety information and/or workplace emergency response information.

Typically, building owners/managers are responsible for public safety information, while employers oversee workplace emergency response. Neither will necessarily have to make significant expenditures to meet the new requirements because they should already be in compliance with similar stipulations in the Fire Code or the Occupational Health & Safety Act.

Notably, building owners are already required to have a Fire Safety Plan that considers how all building occupants will escape or find refuge, while employers must have procedures for the evacuation of disabled employees in emergency situations. For building owners, the accessibility standard will add the requirement that any information made available to the public must be “in an accessible format or with appropriate communication supports.”

“For property managers, planning for emergency situations where there are people with disabilities involved is probably the biggest issue,” advises Frances Jewett, Business Development Manager with the consulting firm, AccessAbility Advantage. “In terms of the emergency and public safety information, the Integrated Accessibility Regulation requires that where information is available publicly, it be provided in an accessible format.”

RISK MANAGEMENT TAKES WIDER SCOPE

Although building owners/managers are responsible for developing Fire Safety Plans, they typically do so in consultation with their tenants. Beyond their employees, it’s also prudent for employers think about their business clients. For example, a family physician who rents space in an office tower would have a steady stream of patients who might have vision impairments or be on crutches, using a cane or pushing a stroller.

“A building Fire Safety Plan can’t feasibly contain all the specific accommodations that may be required for each person with a disability in, for example,
a multi-tenant office building,” says Laura Muirhead, a Fire Safety Planning Consultant with the engineering consulting firm, GENIVAR. “As employers, tenants should already have an individualized plan in place for their employees with disabilities, under the AODA employment standard. Tenants should, however, also plan for the possibility that customers, clients and visitors in their premises may have disabilities, and prepare measures to ensure that their safety
is not compromised in the event of emergencies. This is a contingency that I would expect to see in the customer service regulation under the AODA.”

A proactive approach to risk assessment would likely examine such related concerns even if they aren’t explicitly outlined in the legislation.

“Legislation is not written to be a guide for compliance. It is written so that when you mess up, the government can charge you,” asserts David Gardner, Senior Occupational Hygienist and Safety Consultant with Pinchin Environmental Ltd. “You have to address your risk and communicate the risk.”

GUIDELINES NOT AVAILABLE

For now, building owners/managers don’t have a lot of direction for determining whether their instructional signage for emergency response is suitably accessible. Definitions of “accessible formats” and “communication supports” are somewhat vague in the draft Integrated Accessibility Regulation and leave room for additional items and/or services that aren’t specifically listed.

    DEFINITIONS:

  • Accessible formats may include, but are not limited to, large print, recorded audio and electronic formats, Braille, and other formats usable by persons with disabilities.
  • Communication supports may include, but are not limited to, captioning, alternative and augmentative communication supports, plain language, sign language and other supports that facilitate effective communications.

Source: proposed Integrated Accessibility Regulation

“Your communication needs to be intelligible to the people reading it,” Jewett says. “You make it accessible in whatever format works for them.”

The accessibility standard for the built environment, which is still in development, will provide more detailed definitions of accessible signage. The standard’s development committee submitted a final proposed version to the Minister of the Community and Social Services in July 2010, which was briefly posted on
the Ministry’s web site, but it has now been removed.

“Unfortunately, I don’t know of a public web site that is actually posting the built environment standard now,” Jewett says. “I’m not certain that signage companies or building code specialists have much information either.”

Ultimately, the government intends to integrate the built environment standard into the Ontario Building Code so that it would apply to new construction and renovations. Consultations for the 2011 Building Code haven’t yet contemplated the issue, however.

“Further research and analysis will be needed before formal consultations can take place,” states the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing’s consultation paper on potential changes in the 2011 code. (See the web site at www.mah.gov.on.ca/Page9261.aspx.)

EXTENSION POSSIBLE

The timing for implementation of the Integrated Accessibility Standard is also unclear, but Jewett speculates that the proposed January 1, 2012 deadline for accessible public safety information could be extended. Even so, she urges all organizations to keep an eye on the calendar. Private companies with at least 50 employees will have to meet various requirements that will be phased in between 2013 and 2016, while the same requirements come into force
for smaller companies between 2014 and 2017.

“Each organization will have to sit down and think about what has to be done,” Jewett suggests. “For the built environment, some companies are starting to audit the building for accessibility. They want to know what is and isn’t accessible because it is much more cost-effective to integrate accessibility in as renovations take place.”

For more information, see the Ministry of Community and Social Services web site at www.mcss.gov.on.ca/en/mcss/programs/accessibility

Reproduced from http://www.canadianpropertymanagement.ca/AccessibilityStandardsPrioritizeSafety.aspx

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