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February 15, 2004    DOL Home > Newsroom > Speeches & Remarks   

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF LABOR

Remarks Prepared for Delivery for
U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao
Interagency Seminar on Emergency Preparedness for People With Disabilities
U.S. Department of Labor
Tuesday, December 2, 2003

Thank you, Roy [Roy Grizzard].

I would like to recognize the staff of the Office of Disability Employment Policy for planning this intensive two-day seminar. And I would like to thank Assistant Secretary John Henshaw and Assistant Secretary Pat Pizzella for their support of this important event.

I would also like to welcome the more than 20 presenters who have agreed to share their expertise on a number of key preparedness issues—especially Dan Sutherland, from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights, who took time from his busy schedule to be this morning’s keynote speaker.

I would also like to recognize the participation of the National Organization on Disability and its Director, Elizabeth Davis—thank you for your leadership in this critical area.

Today is truly an important milestone for federal emergency planners. We have 225 representatives from more than 90 Federal offices and agencies with us today. This is the first time ever that senior personnel from emergency preparedness, security, office safety and disability programs have gathered together to address emergency preparedness for federal employees with disabilities.

At the Labor Department, we are working hard to bring people with disabilities into the federal workplace. As President George W. Bush said, when he announced his New Freedom Initiatives for people with disabilities, “We must speed the day when the last barrier has been removed to full and independent lives for every American with or without disabilities.”

To meet this challenge, the Department is involved in a number of key initiatives for people with disabilities. We’re developing new training initiatives, offering creative placement services and adapting new technologies. We are encouraging flextime and easing transportation challenges. Equally important, we’re making the federal workplace a model workplace by ensuring a safe and secure environment for employees with disabilities.

We are committed to taking the steps necessary to ensure that all federal employees with disabilities are protected during an emergency.

The events of September 11th set up a new challenge in the workplace for people with disabilities—the ability to quickly evacuate employees with disabilities during terrorist threats, attacks and other disasters.

At the Department, we have always taken the safety requirements of our over 1,000 employees with disabilities very seriously. We are constantly revising and fine tuning our emergency preparedness plans. Even prior to September 11th, the Labor Department had plans in place for the speedy and effective emergency evacuation of employees with disabilities. Since then, we have strengthened these plans. I convened a Secretarial-level Task Force to improve the workplace safety of all Department of Labor employees, and people with disabilities were a key focus of our action plan.

Let me illustrate the importance of planning for these emergencies with a story involving some of our OSHA colleagues in New York.

In August 2001, OSHA staff at the Manhattan Area Office completed an uneventful evacuation drill from their offices on the top floor of Building 6 of the World Trade Center complex. Managers felt confident that everyone could escape the building safely in an emergency—including an employee who had recently returned to work in a wheelchair. The evacuation plan had specifically been revised to accommodate his needs.

Within weeks, the practice proved more valuable than anyone could have imagined.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, OSHA employees had begun a routine day when an explosion shook the building. The Assistant Area Director immediately issued the order to evacuate. As the first plane hit the North Tower of the WTC, debris began falling on Building 6. OSHA staff rushed into the hallway. Three employees helped their co-worker in the wheelchair down the corridor and into a freight elevator they had used during the practice drill. They descended to the basement, into a garage, down some steps, and into another garage, where they escaped from the building.

The group moved outside just as the second plane hit the South Tower. As the group moved away from the site, the North Tower collapsed, destroying OSHA’s Manhattan Area Office as it fell. We are so thankful that no Department of Labor employee was lost during that tragic day. Thanks, in no small part to OSHA’s careful emergency planning, everyone knew what to do—even in this unprecedented circumstance.

This is a perfect example of why we must have emergency preparedness plans in place for people with disabilities and why we must perfect these plans with constant practice. Practice save lives, prevents injuries and helps create the conditions for a calm and professional evacuation should it ever be needed.

Every single day, more than 120,000 employees with disabilities go to work in the national headquarters buildings, regional offices or field locations that are owned by or leased by the Federal government. Their safety—and the safety of all federal workers—is our number one priority.

That’s why we’re having this conference, to guarantee that no federal worker is left behind in an emergency. We must ensure that everyone has a safe and secure workplace environment. As leaders in your field, we’ll be looking to you to come up with creative solutions to the challenges ahead.

During the next two days you will hear from a number of speakers on a wide variety of subjects—from developing communication plans to applying technologies to help in evacuations. It is critical that you attend these breakout sessions and general panel discussions. We need everyone’s participation if we are to create federal emergency preparedness plans that save lives.

So please take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to learn from your colleagues and expert consultants.

We hope you will return to your agencies with new insights and practical tools to help create an ever better emergency management plan for your agency.

Working together, we can create a safe and secure workplace—ready for any emergency.

Thank you for joining us, and have a great seminar!

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