Everyone seems to be discussing bird flu these days. I wasn’t surprised when it came up at our recent book group meeting.

Our new member Barbara runs a recruitment and temping business. She said, while we were having a cup of tea, that if there was a bird flu outbreak, we wouldn’t be able to meet for a while. I asked what she had done to prepare her business for emergencies such as bird flu or a large earthquake. She said she had not done much before, but she was now gathering supplies such as masks. She expected her business to continue during any outbreak, with added pressure to find temps for people away from work.

Our public servant Cyril said Barbara’s attitude sounded very casual. He said that his department has a Bird Flu Planning Committee, which had already issued instructions and plans. I suggested to Cyril that each organisation might need to prepare in a different way. The key outcome is that all employers must comply with their legal duties, including those under the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992, to take all practicable steps to provide and maintain a safe working environment for employees.

  • The Health Act 1956 and the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act 2002 authorise closing public places and workplaces, emergency powers, evacuations, states of emergency, and quarantine. There is now a Law Reform (Epidemic Preparedness) Bill before Parliament which proposes added powers for health and quarantine, and changes in respect of welfare and holidays provisions.
  • Employers must identify and manage workplace hazards. Significant workplace hazards are to be eliminated, or if that is not practicable, isolated or minimised.
  • There might be times when an employer is forced to close the business. Employers need to know what their obligations are to pay staff if this happens, and staff need to know what is payable.
  • Employers should develop safety, leave and operational procedures for maintaining business continuity in any emergency. Arranging for staff to have vaccinations (if available) and providing protective gear such as gloves, masks and disinfectant may be necessary. Employee leave procedures can define when they must stay at home; what will happen if they have to care for a sick family member; and if they have to be medically cleared before returning to work. As an employer cannot make significant changes to an employee’s terms of employment unless the employee agrees, operational procedures might deal with temporary flexible working practices, such as part-time work; requiring staff to work to a roster, outside their normal hours, or from home, to minimise human contact; or requiring staff to perform others’ duties.
  • One option is to have an Emergency Employment Code, to apply only if certain trigger events happen. As employees are legally obliged to ensure their own safety while at work, they should help develop it.

Barbara said this was much more than she had in mind and it sounded like Y2K all over again. But she is at risk of overlooking her duty as an employer to take all practicable steps to provide and maintain a safe working environment. These points don’t relate only to bird flu. Hazard management must be a regular and ongoing business practice, and practical, flexible working policies benefit the employer as much as the employee.

Ironically, we then went back to discussing last month’s book – Wild Swans.

By Penelope Ryder-Lewis, first published in The Dominion Post

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