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Natural disasters: what are your responsibilities if the worst occurs?

Natural disasters: what are your responsibilities if the worst occurs?

Following the recent tragic earthquake in the Kaikoura region, many major roads were closed and widespread damage occurred in the immediate area and nearby Wellington. Schools and universities across the region were instructed to remain closed until the situation could be assessed, and the reconstruction of damaged property is expected to take months.

In the wake of such a catastrophe, many employers may be confused as to what their rights and responsibilities are in the event of a natural disaster occurring, and how to support their staff who may be sick, injured, bereaved or unable to attend work.

If the disaster occurs during working hours:

Natural disasters can occur at any time, meaning employers need to be prepared to ensure the safety of their workers. If a disaster happens during working hours, all workplaces should be prepared to deal with a civil defence emergency to minimise any potential harm to employees.

Employers are obligated under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (HSWA) to have procedures in place, including an Emergency Response Plan, which details actions to be taken in the event of an emergency. Practice emergency response drills should be conducted at least annually, or in the event that there has been a significant change in staff. Staff input should be sought and considered in relation to their roles and responsibilities in the event of an emergency, and all staff should be shown the emergency exits and explained the emergency evacuation procedure in their induction.

In the event that a natural disaster occurs, the HSWA 2015 stipulates that employers must take all reasonable steps to ensure a safe workplace for employees, or anyone else who may enter the premises, for example contractors, visitors or customers. This means refusing entry to the workplace until your building has been declared structurally safe. Even if there are no restrictions on the use of the building an employer must ensure the workplace is free from hazards such as unstable stock, puddles of water, or loose cables before allowing their staff entry.

If your workplace has suffered damage and is no longer safe.

If a natural disaster has rendered your workplace unsafe, you are required under the HSWA to inform your employees to not come into work. Generally, an employee is entitled to payment of wages when they are unable to attend work due to factors outside of their control. As a general rule employers cannot cease payment of wages, remove benefits or suspend employees without pay unless this is agreed upon in the employment agreement.

Unless an employee has agreed in their employment agreement that their wages will be withheld in the event that their employer cannot provide work, then the employer must continue to pay their ordinary wages even if the business is temporarily closed.

When a workplace is deemed unsafe, employers may look into alternative premises (on the condition that these premises are within reasonable distance to the workplace) or allow employees to work from home. However, as the definition of a safe working environment extends to wherever the employee is conducting their work, the employer must ensure the employee’s home is safe prior to them commencing their duties.

Employers can request that their employees take annual leave during the workplace closure, however the Holidays Act 1993 requires an employer provide their employee with a minimum of 14 days’ notice that they wish them to take annual leave. Unpaid leave, or leave in advance may also be considered.

What if one of my employees is unable to attend work?

Employers must be mindful that following a natural disaster an employee may be unable to attend work due to being sick, injured, bereaved, organising repairs, transport issues, or due needing to care for children as a result of school closures.

If an employee is unable, or unwilling, to return to work due to their responsibilities toward their children or to address damage that has been done to their property, then an agreement will need to be made with their employer for them to take annual leave, leave without pay, work from home or make up time at a later date. Whatever is agreed should always be recorded in writing and kept on file.

If an employee is sick or injured, or caring for an immediate family member who is sick or injured then they should be provided with sick leave or paid carer’s leave in accordance with their entitlements. The same applies if an employee is suffering from bereavement, and appropriate support for this employee should be put in place.

Support for employees suffering psychologically.

Employers should also be mindful of the psychological affects that a natural disaster may have on an employee. It may be reasonable to allow staff who are suffering from stress or anxiety to phase their return to work, or go onto flexible working hours.

Under the HSWA employers must take all reasonable steps to minimise the chances of an employee suffering psychological harm whilst at work. Employer support for an employee suffering from poor mental health may include:

  • allowing your employee to start or finish work at a later time, especially if sleep patterns are affected
  • ensuring breaks are taken and lunch hours are used
  • having an allocated area employees can go to if they need to take a short break, or encouraging employees to take a short walk for some fresh air
  • reviewing workplace stressors that may negatively impact on staff mental health such as poor communication or unrealistic deadlines
  • offering an employee assistance program and counselling to affected employees

Under no circumstances can an employee be discriminated against due to mental health.

In the event of a natural disaster, communication with your employees is key. They need to know whether it is safe for them to return to work, or if the business is going to be temporarily closed. Everyone reacts to situations differently, so it is paramount that employers keep the lines of communication open and always act in good faith.

Employsure is a leading workplace relations specialist, and is here to help if you have any questions relating to your employment obligations or your employees’ entitlements. Call us today on 0800 675 700.


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