The swine flu threat is a timely reminder to all employers to develop a disaster plan for the workplace for when a pandemic or disaster occurs. This Brief Counsel provides broad advice on what the employer’s legal obligations and options are.
The Health and Safety in Employment Act requires employers to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of employees while at work. Depending on the level of risk involved, employers may be required to provide employees with information about the flu and how to minimise it spreading, provide protective clothing and equipment such as surgical masks and gloves, require employees to abide by strict hygiene rules, ensure a greater physical separation of employees, send some employees home, or if the risk is high, close the workplace.
In deciding whether the workplace should stay open during a pandemic, employers should consider whether there is an unacceptable level of risk to employees in doing so. If a decision is made to close the business, employers should have a plan in place to ensure the core elements of the business keep running during the closure.
A business continuity plan should outline what steps will be taken to minimise the impact of staff absences of up to 50% at any one time. For example, employees could work from home where this is practical. That may require an employer to consider what equipment will be necessary for working from home, including potentially providing payment for home broadband connections. Other employees may need to be trained as back-ups for those who are crucial to the continued operation of the business. Finally, employers should also consider how to cope with the aftermath of a pandemic.
Employers will usually be required to continue paying employees while the business is closed. However, it may be possible to direct employees to use annual leave or do so by agreement.
Further detailed information about swine flu can be found at the Ministry of Health’s website: http://www.moh.govt.nz/moh.nsf.
A comprehensive business continuity planning guide can be found on the Ministry of Economic Development’s website: http://www.med.govt.nz/upload/27552/planning-guide.pdf.