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Workplace Health and Safety Considerations

Editor's Note: Brenda Cooke is an AEBC member at large from Saskatchewan. She volunteers as Editor for this magazine and participates on various national AEBC committees.

In researching this article, I checked the internet and called various government offices, and soon learned that most information is American and that employers are pretty much only required to have a minimum level of health and safety, which may or may not address the needs of persons who are blind or partially sighted. Upon an employer hiring someone with a physical, sensory, mental or intellectual disability, it would be up to that employer to ensure that the workplace is safe for that new employee. Where does this leave mainstream employers in terms of being prepared to hire a blind person? Is there financial assistance available for employers to help defray any such "health and safety" costs? And who does the employer turn to in order to find out what resources are available?

It is recommended that employers sit down with blind or partially sighted workers to discuss the possibility of developing precautions beyond the typical common-sense health and safety issues of the workplace. The employer and worker should talk about his vision level and the typical hazards he encounters. For the most part, blind people have been taught--or have figured out for themselves--how to handle health and safety issues. They, like most people, are responsible and careful; however, the control a blind person has over his environment on a day-to-day basis, and during an emergency, is substantially reduced when other people are around.

A blind person's mobility is usually based on the use of a white cane, which allows him to extend his reach so that he can feel and hear what is in front of him. The cane assists him to detect changes in the type and height of surfaces as he walks, and can help him in avoiding obstacles. People should not move things out of his way--unless they should not be there in the first place--as that will prevent the blind person from learning the layout of his environment. A person with good mobility skills may still bump into things or fall, but this is inevitable and generally minor. Taking precautions, however, is smart planning.

Pedestrian safety is important. Rain causes treacherous sidewalks and roads, power outages and floods, all of which may contribute to disorientation for the blind person, as can ice and snow. And white canes do not stop people from slipping on ice. Sidewalks, paths, parking lots and roads should be kept clear of snow, ice and other debris. There should be safe walking areas and clearly marked crossings, as well as stable and clear stairs, overpasses and bridges. Passageways and tunnels should be well lit. Drivers should be alerted when disabled pedestrians are on the site.

Finding his way around a new workplace can be difficult for a blind person, and sometimes it means getting lost a couple of times until he figures out the correct path. While some blind people have developed impressive navigation skills and sense of direction, each person is at different stages of learning skills and adjusting to their blindness. Another factor is the availability of qualified mobility instructors, as this varies from community to community. Tools such as coloured lines on walls, while meant to lead all visitors to different service areas, are also helpful for those with partial vision. Guides can orient a blind worker thoroughly to the physical plant and to areas that have changed or been renovated. In addition, at least at the beginning, a blind employee could be given a radio or cell phone to carry and use when he thinks he is lost.

Educating other workers about guide dogs is crucial. Interfering with a blind employee's dog while it is working can distract it, cause it to lose its training and forget how to keep its handler from danger. The owner will tell others when the guide dog is off-duty, if asked. Guide dogs are not trained to do search and rescue, sniff out bombs and drugs or act as attack animals, and should not be expected to do so. Emergency supplies should include food, water, first aid and blankets for any service animals on site. Because the law says guide dogs can go everywhere in the workplace, access for blind workers and their animals should not be limited, as that could hinder their safety.

Extra care is needed for a blind or partially sighted worker regarding crime prevention. He can be more vulnerable to crime and have difficulty reporting it for fear--due to his lack of eyesight--of not being taken seriously. Protection for blind employees from workplace crime, such as sexual assault, can be provided through self-defense and safety training, keeping your work site well lit and secure, and by taking them seriously before and after a crime.

I am quite convinced that the health and safety of blind and partially sighted employees in most workplaces is quite simple to achieve without a lot of extra effort or cost. A great source of advice about eliminating hazards is probably the insurance company. It does not want to pay a claim after an accident, and would probably be happy to provide information, tools and audits. The safer the work site, the lower the premiums are likely to be. I invite all readers to take a look around their workplaces, and public places in general, to see what changes are required to provide a healthy and safe environment for blind and partially sighted employees.

(For more information, see "Typical Workplace Hazards" and "Solutions for Avoiding Hazards" elsewhere in these pages.)

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