Stop Press – Employment issues during bushfires and drought

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This Stop Press has been developed by the AVA HR Advisory Service to notify employers and employees of their workplace relations rights and obligations during bushfires and droughts.

January 2020

Bushfire Smoke – WHS Considerations

As an after-effect of the bushfires which have devastated parts of the country, bushfire smoke has spread as far as New Zealand. This type of smoke is hazardous and therefore presents a WHS risk for organisations and their staff who may be exposed to it. Consider the following if you or your business is exposed to bushfire smoke;

  • Keep doors and windows closed wherever possible
  • Ensure outdoor activities are kept to a minimum
  • Encourage asthma sufferers to receive information from their GP about managing their asthma and work with these employees to ensure the workplace is safe for them
  • If you are required to drive in the course of your duties, exercise particular caution if driving through a smoke-affected area.
  • Consider providing masks to employees who may be more exposed to smoke because of their duties
  • If relevant, consider providing alternative duties to employees who may be more exposed to smoke
Other WHS considerations

Another after-effect of the bushfires and dry conditions has been an increase in dust throughout the atmosphere. Ensure dust is cleaned and that equipment is not damaged as a result of the increased dust.

If an employee begins to show signs that they may be suffering from smoke or dust, seek medical assistance immediately.

Extreme Weather – What staff are paid

In circumstances of extreme weather such as bushfires or flash flooding, the following applies;

  • If a business cannot open because of extreme weather, employees can be stood down and do not need to be paid. Employees can choose to use their annual leave if they wish, and such requests for annual leave cannot be unreasonably refused. Employers can also choose to pay employees as normal at their discretion.

    Before standing down employees however, consider whether they can be usefully employed elsewhere or in another capacity (such as working from home). Staff should be notified of a stand down in writing, and such notice should specify the duration of the stand down and the process a staff member needs to follow to apply for leave.

  • If an employee cannot get to work because of extreme weather (road closures, risk to their home etc.), they may elect to take annual leave. Personal/carer’s leave can also be taken if the employee is;
    • suffering from an illness or injury relating to the extreme weather, or
    • providing care or support to a member of their immediate family who is ill or injured as a result of the extreme weather, or
    • responding to an unexpected emergency arising from the extreme whether which affects a member of their immediate family.

Employees who participate in emergency volunteer activity

Employees are entitled to community service leave if they are part of a recognised emergency body such as the SES, RFS or RSPCA and they are engaging in voluntary emergency management activity. This type of leave is unpaid. There is no limit as to how much community service leave an employee can take. Employers can request evidence to verify that the employee is entitled to the leave (i.e. they fit the criteria mentioned above).

Supporting your employees after the bushfires

Natural disasters such as bushfires can be extremely challenging for those affected. The following is a set of strategies developed by Lifeline to help people cope after a natural disaster.

  • Recovery takes time. It is important to allow yourself time to process your circumstances and regain a sense of normalcy. There are things you can do to heal and rebuild.
  • Recognise when it’s getting too much - watch out for signs of stress and get extra support when things become overwhelming. Allow yourself extra time to get things done.
  • Talk - release your emotions and tension by talking to someone you trust. This can help put things into perspective. It’s likely others in your community are experiencing similar feelings so this gives everyone an opportunity to release negative feelings and discuss practical ways to deal with the situation.
  • Develop an action plan - decide who’s going to do what and when. Summarise your financial situation and discuss your options with your bank to alleviate stress of any financial concerns. Having a plan will help you feel you are making progress.
  • Take care of yourself - eat well, exercise and sleep. Try to get back to your normal routine when you feel ready. Wherever possible, schedule extra time for things you enjoy or that you find relaxing.
  • Get help - lean on family and friends. Strong support networks can provide emotional or practical support. Explain your needs and tell them exactly how they can help. Make a list of places to go to for help e.g. financial assistance, emotional support, your GP a helpline Like Lifeline.
  • Consider professional help - If you don’t feel some return to normal after four weeks, seek professional help (earlier if needed).

Lifeline provides 24/7 crisis support and suicide prevention services to Australians experiencing a personal crisis – including after natural disasters. To donate, go to https://www.lifeline.org.au/support-lifeline/donate/donation

The AVA Counselling Service can also provide 24/7 support to members and their families who may be struggling as a result of the recent bushfires. Contact 1300 687 327 for counselling support.

If you have any questions about this stop press, please contact the AVA HR Advisory Service on 1300 788 977.

Disclaimer

The material contained in this publication is general comment and is not intended as advice on any particular matter. No reader should act or fail to act on the basis of any material contained herein. The material contained in this publication should not be relied on as a substitute for legal or professional advice on any particular matter. Wentworth Advantage Pty Ltd, expressly disclaim all and any liability to any persons whatsoever in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by any such person in reliance whether in whole or in part upon any of the contents of this publication. Without limiting the generality of this disclaimer, no author or editor shall have any responsibility for any other author or editor. For further information please contact Wentworth Advantage Pty Ltd.

©Wentworth Advantage Pty Ltd 2020

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