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Natural disasters and workplace safety

Very hot days, storms, bushfires, floods and other forms of extreme weather are very disruptive to all our lives but we usually are given warnings.

Weather bureaus predict and issue warnings ahead of storms, rail, hail, heat waves etc. For example, the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) issues:

  • three-day cyclone outlooks during the cyclone season for most areas and state governments make available Cyclone Preparedness advice (see here) and
  • three-day heat wave assessment warnings (see here).

Bushfires are less predictable and local emergency services advice needs to be followed. Check your state or territory’s emergency services or fire services website.

Employers (including a person carrying out a business or undertaking) have an obligation to protect workers health and safety, and this includes monitoring risks such as bushfire smoke, heat, floods, heavy rain that have the potential to affect workers’ health.

For example, heavy storms or high winds can damage buildings and create extremely dangerous conditions for outdoor or transport workers.

Employers need to conduct risk assessments and have plans in place for what to do in these circumstances. Being prepared can limit damage and protect everyone’s safety. Those plans need to include:

  • Hot weather days – protections for outdoor workers, re-scheduling of work, when to stop certain activities and the provision of safe alternative duties, provision of air cooling – see Working in heat
  • Bushfire smoke and pollution
  • Heavy winds, storms and cyclones – following bureau of meteorology advice to ensure objects are firmly secured etc.

As for any other health and safety risk, if the employer/PCBU has no plans for extreme weather events, Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs) and workers can raise their concerns directly with their employer/PCBU.

If workers/HSRs are dissatisfied with the employer/PCBU response, the HSR can exercise their powers of issuing a Provisional Improvement Notice (PIN), or seek outside assistance from your union or the state/territory’s work safety regulator.  

Employers have general obligations under Health and Safety laws which are directly relevant to preparing for extreme weather events:

  • Provide adequate facilities
  • Monitor working conditions
  • Provide information, instruction, and training 

It is important to remember that you have an individual right to cease work if there is imminent risk to your safety. For example, this could be water damage leading to risks due to unsafe electrical systems or building damage, or concerns about asbestos containing materials or other hazardous substances being loose or damaged due to winds or fire, etc.

Additionally, your Health and Safety Representative (HSR) have the right to direct a cease work if the is an immediate or imminent risk to health and safety.

If you cease work due to unsafe working conditions, then you need to remember that you must be available to do other suitable duties – if it is safe to do so.

In many circumstances workers will need to leave work in order to make sure their homes and families are safe. PCBUs/employers need to have in place plans to enable everyone to do this.

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