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How to Make Your Safety Program Inclusive to Workers with Disabilities

By Karoly Ban Matei
Published: August 17, 2023
Key Takeaways

Taking steps to meet the needs of all employees is the only way to create a truly safe workplace.

Caption: Workers shaking hands at desk Source: SeventyFour / iStock

Until recently, discussions of disability in the workplace were not commonplace. Because of this, many of us assumed that workers with disabilities were themselves rare, constituting only a small segment of the overall population.

The data tells a different story. According to Statcan, there were 6.2 million Canadians aged 15 and over living with a disability in 2017.

If that number seems high, it's likely because most of us default to a narrow view of disability, thinking of it mainly in terms of mobility issues. And while mobility does indeed make up a substantial percentage of overall disabilities, it is only one category among many.


To create an inclusive and safe workplace, we will need to account for every type of disability workers may have, such as learning disabilities, pain-related conditions, and hearing impairments.

Source: Statcan

Elements of an Inclusive Safety Program

Although disabilities are quite common, accommodations are often insufficient, non-existent, or begrudgingly provided to individual workers who successfully advocate for themselves. It is unsurprising, then, that people with disabilities have higher unemployment rates compared to people without them. The employment rate drops even lower as the severity of the disability increases, to the point where the employment rate of people with very severe disabilities is only 26%.

Clearly, there is substantial room for improvement.

However, creating a safety program inclusive of people with disabilities will require more than having a nondiscrimination policy and retrofitting washrooms to respond to mobility issues. So, let's take a look at what should be included in a safety program that is truly inclusive.

Leadership Commitment

A workplace will not be truly safe for people with disabilities unless senior management and leaders within the organization are committed to creating an inclusive workplace. This commitment should not only be reflected in the company's policies and practices, but also in company leadership approving any needed accommodations and modifications - from ergonomic workstations to Braille signs.

While generally treated as standalone elements, the follow can be seen as subsets of leadership commitment to supporting employees with disabilities:

  • Reasonable Accommodation - Establishing a process for employees to request accommodations that support their health and safety needs and to ensure that these requests are handled promptly and confidentially. These accommodations (including those related to health and safety) should be granted, as long as they do not create undue hardship for the organization. For example, modifying a workstation to allow an employee to carry out their job in a wheelchair is a reasonable accommodation.
  • Non-Discrimination Policy - Non-discrimination policies and codes of conduct communicate the organization's commitment to inclusivity. This goes hand in hand with reasonable accommodation, as it requires the company to hire and promote people even when doing so would mean providing accommodations to help them succeed in their new role.
  • A Culture of Respect - The organization should foster and promote a culture of respect, empathy, and understanding among all employees. Any instances of discrimination or harassment should be dealt with promptly.

Employee Involvement

Getting employees involved in developing your health and safety program is a best practice at all times. While gathering input from every single person in your workforce is not usually necessary, it is important to recognize that each employee with a disability will have different needs and abilities that should be taken into consideration. Seek their feedback, not only initially but periodically. Be willing to continually update the health and safety program based on this feedback to ensure that they remain inclusive of all your employees.

This is especially important for the formal hazard assessment, since the tasks, hazards, and controls might not be the same for employees with disabilities. Creating an alternate formal hazard assessment for employees with disabilities is one way to do this. Modifying your existing hazard asssessment is preferable, however, since it will make non-disabled employees aware of their colleagues' limitations, which is especially important if they work together.


Disability Awareness Training

Regardless of how empathetic they are, chances are your employees do not fully understand the needs and abilities of each and every one of their co-workers. This can cause them to act in ways that are hazardous or inconsiderate to their disabled colleagues.

Management should, therefore, ensure that all employees receive disability awareness training. This will foster a better understanding of the challenges faced by other workers and the importance of providing accommodations to ensure that they can work safely, comfortably, and productively. The training should focus on creating a supportive and cooperative environment where the needs of all employees are taken into consideration.

Accessible Communication

Safety and communication are closely interconnected, and being able to convey and understand information is essential for keeping workers safe. Communication is how we verify that we're using the right tools, understand the stages of an operation, and provide training and feedback. However, the typical communication workflow assumes that everybody can see, hear, and understand what we are communicating. Most workplaces have color-coded warning signs, for example, but these aren't terribly useful for someone who is visually impaired or color blind.

To overcome this problem, see to it that all health and safety information, training materials, and emergency procedures are provided in formats that are accessible to all employees within the organization. For example, handouts could be formatted in large print, training videos could feature close captioning, and important safety information could be made available in audio format.

Physical Accessibility

The worksite has to be accessible to all employees, whether for regular work activities or emergency evacuation. Every organization should conduct an accessibility audit to identify and address physical barriers that could hinder the full participation of any employee and make necessary adjustments to correct this. Common solutions include ramps, elevators, and automatic doors.

Ergonomic Assessments

Having workstations that fit the worker will reduce the strain on their bodies are and is essential for avoided repetitive strain injuries and musculoskeletal disorders. Offering ergonomic assessments for employees with disabilities can ensure that their workstations are adapted to meet their needs, reducing the risk of an ergonomic injury.

Keep in mind, however, that ergonomic solutions employees with disabilities are not as intuitive as they are for non-disabled employees. Where the height of a standard office chair can easily be adjusted, an employee who uses a wheelchair will instead need to have their desk lowered or raised at a comfortable level. In a manufacturing setup where workers stand and manipulate products on a conveyor belt, a ramp and platform might be needed to allow the same level of access from a wheelchair.

Emergency Evacuation Plans

When planning or reviewing your workplace's emergency evacuation plans, be sure to go over the plan with employees to ensure that their individual needs are taken into account. Every second counts during an evacuation and no worker should be put in harm's way by poorly designed evacuation procedures.

Depending on the employees' disabilities, changes to the emergency response might include:

  • Visual alarms
  • Audible alarms
  • Ramps (to circumvent the elevators and stairs)
  • Relocating specific offices or workstations to the main floor
  • Assigning trained personnel or colleagues to assist them during emergencies


Since most workplaces and job tasks are designed with the average non-disabled worker in mind, they can present additional challenges and hazards for employees with disabilities. But with leadership support, good communication, and reasonable accommodations, these issues can be overcome and all employees can be safely integrated into the workforce.


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Written by Karoly Ban Matei | HR and Safety Manager

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Karoly has worked at a senior level (both as an employee and a contractor) for organizations in the construction and manufacturing industries. He has a passion for developing and improving health and safety programs.

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