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Flood and storm hazards

For: Claimants Employers and managers Service providers Advocates Information seekers

WHS duties for employers and workers

Employers and workers involved in any flood clean-up and storm recovery activities must comply with obligations under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011.

Broadly employers have duties to:

  • provide and maintain a work environment that is without risk to health and safety
  • provide adequate and accessible facilities for the welfare of workers to carry out their work
  • monitor the health of workers and the conditions of the workplace to prevent illness or injury
  • prepare, maintain and implement plans for emergencies, including cyclones and other natural disasters.

Workers’ duties under the WHS Act include:

  • Taking reasonable care for their own health and safety
  • Taking reasonable care their acts or omissions do not adversely affect the health and safety of others
  • Complying so far as they are reasonably able with the employer’s reasonable instruction, policy or procedure of the employer relating to health or safety at the workplace.

For more information on duties, see Your role

Contractor Management – engaging a specialist

Some flood and storm clean-up and recovery activities may require employers to call upon the expertise of specialist contractors to undertake specific work. This does not absolve the employer of their duties. They must consult, cooperate and coordinate with the specialist contractor to ensure the work of the employer (and the contractor’s work) does not put any workers at risk of harm.

Where an employer relies on a specialist contractor with technical expertise, they are required to ensure the specialist:

  • has the necessary expertise for the work and their own systems in place for carrying out the work safely
  • is carrying out the work safely as per their own stated procedures (and not putting others at risk).

The employer must also continue to consult, coordinate and cooperate with the specialist, and provide appropriate instruction.

Consultation

Employers must consult, so far as is reasonably practicable, with workers who carry out work for the business or undertaking and who are (or are likely to be) directly affected by a health and safety matter. This duty recognises that worker input and participation improve decision-making about health and safety matters and assists in reducing work-related injuries and disease.

For more information:

Working in floods and flood recovery

Working during floods and storms can be hazardous. Lightning, hail, wind and water can cause significant harm to workers as well as property.

Employers should:

  • Keep workers informed of severe weather warnings, flood watch and flood warnings and emergency evacuation orders—visit the Bureau of Meteorology website for the latest flood warnings and updates
  • Evacuate workers early from at-risk locations
  • Request workers avoid walking, swimming, riding or driving through flood water. Workers should know the dangers connected to floodwater and follow a clear policy of ‘If it’s flooded, forget it’
  • Keep workers inside, in fully enclosed buildings that have electricity or plumbing that ground lightning as electricity and plumbing fixtures conduct electricity more efficiently. Alternatively, keep inside enclosed metal cars, trucks or vans. Unsafe shelters include, but are not limited to, covered picnic shelters, carports, tents, soft-top and topless vehicles
    • Once inside a building or enclosed shelter, stay away from electrical appliances and plumbing fixtures
    • If you are inside a vehicle, roll up the windows and avoid contact with any conducting paths leading to the outside of the vehicle eg. radios, ignition etc
  • Request workers control electrical risks by turning off power points, unplugging electrical equipment and avoiding landline telephones, powerlines, trees, watercourses and flooded rooms that may have electricity
  • Instruct workers to follow emergency plans and procedures.

During clean-up and recovery activities

While it is important that clean-up and recovery activities commence as soon as possible following a flood or storm, employers and workers involved in these activities must remember that their obligations under WHS laws still apply.

Inductions

Everyone involved in the clean-up and recovery activities needs to be made aware of the potential dangers and proper safety precautions through group briefings or inductions before any work commences.

A briefing or induction should include:

  • personal safety matters such as hydration, hygiene, breaks and fatigue
  • existing and potential hazards and the proper safety precautions, including identifying and responding to dangerous situations
  • health and safety procedures such as providing instruction for any equipment they may be using
  • how to use personal protective equipment (PPE) provided
  • the tasks workers will be undertaking, noting that workers should not be asked to carry out work that they do not have the knowledge and skills to do, or are not licensed to do
  • directions received from authorities such as emergency services, health, and state and local governments
  • how they can report any health or safety concerns, injuries or illnesses that may occur while undertaking clean-up and recovery work
  • emergency procedures and how to access first aid treatment.

Work health and safety duties and risk management

Before attempting any clean up and/or recovery work in a flood or storm affected area, it is important that employers assess the potential for workers and other persons exposure to risks associated with the hazardous environment they will be working in.

Employers must:

  • Be proactive and think about what could go wrong and what the consequences could be
  • Eliminate or minimise the health and safety risks, where reasonably practicable.

Employers should use risk management principles to assess if workers or other persons may be exposed to risk as a result of the work activity:

  • Identify the hazards
  • Assess the level of risk: the likelihood of exposure to the hazard, and the consequences (what harm could be done)
  • Control the risk: identify and implement a control. More information is available in the Model Code of Practice: How to manage work health and safety risks
  • Review the control measures: determine the effectiveness of the implemented control and make sure you have not introduced a new risk.

Employers must consult with their workers and any health and safety representatives at each step of the risk management process. The workers’ experience, knowledge and ideas will assist employers to identify all hazards and choose effective control measures. Safe Work Australia has information available on consultation.

Planning for clean-up and recovery work

There are several steps employers can take when planning to undertake clean-up and recovery work.

These include ensuring:

  • Electricity clearance has been given before attempting to use the electricity
  • Any likely asbestos containing materials (ACM) or hazardous chemicals are identified
  • Consider what could go wrong during the clean-up and recovery
  • Tools and equipment needed to do the work safely have been identified and checked for working order
  • People required to operate the equipment have the right skills, competencies and licences (if required)
  • Adequate supervision for less skilled workers (especially in relation to volunteers)
  • Those who will undertake the work are not fatigued
  • There is appropriate PPE available such as rubber-soled shoes, gloves, hats, sunscreen, sun protective clothing and high visibility vests, and workers know how to use PPE correctly
  • Appropriate first aid, clean drinking water, hand hygiene measures are available and there is access to medical treatment in the event of an injury.

Reducing infection risks from clean-up and recovery work

Workers involved with the clean-up and recovery following floods and storms may be exposed to infection risks from contact with contaminated water, soil and mud.

Where possible, avoid contact with floodwater, mud and soil as it may contain germs that can cause infection, or debris that can cause injury resulting in infection. If contact is unavoidable, use machinery such as excavators or backhoes to move debris.

The following information provides general guidance on reducing infection risks from clean-up and recovery work.

Workplace facilities

Provide workers with adequate facilities so that they can maintain good hygiene at work.

Facilities must:

  • be clean, safe and accessible
  • include washing facilities, potable drinking water, eating facilities and toilets.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Everyone involved in clean-up and recovery work will require suitable PPE to prevent injuries such as cuts, scratches, lacerations and infections from debris and contaminated water.

As a minimum, workers (including volunteers) should be encouraged to wear protective clothing such as long sleeve shirts and pants and suitable enclosed footwear. Specific PPE for the relevant clean-up and recovery must be provided and paid for by the employer.

Examples of PPE that may need to be provided, by the employer, to prevent injury and illness include:

  • hearing protective devices, such as earmuffs and ear plugs
  • respiratory protective equipment
  • eye and face protection, such as safety glasses and face shields
  • safety helmets
  • fall arrest harnesses for working at heights
  • skin protection, such as gloves, gauntlets and sunscreen
  • clothing, such as high visibility vests, life jackets and coveralls
  • footwear, such as safety boots and rubber boots.

First aid

The provision of first aid is a legal requirement under the WHS laws (Work Health and Safety Regulations 2011).

Everyone involved in the clean-up and recovery should be made aware of the location of first aid personnel, facilities and equipment and how to access them.

In the event of a serious injury or illness, quick access to a first aid kit is vital. First aid kits should be kept in a prominent, accessible location and able to be retrieved promptly. Access should also be ensured in security-controlled workplaces. First aid kits should be located close to areas where there is a higher risk of injury or illness.

Further information is available in the Code of Practice: First Aid in the Workplace.

Mental health and wellbeing

Following an emergency or disaster situation, many people have strong emotional or physical reactions including strong feelings of helplessness, grief or anger, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, or changes in behaviours such as increased alcohol consumption or being quick to anger.

While most people will experience reactions during and following the event, for some, the emotional impacts may surface days, weeks or months after the event.

These distressing reactions are a normal part of the recovery process.

The mental health of workers either directly or indirectly affected by floods and storms is an important consideration for employers. They can minimise the risk of psychological stress on workers by:

  • Highlighting and encouraging use of counselling services available to workers
  • Consulting with workers when setting realistic work targets and priorities for completion of clean up and repair works
  • Consulting with workers about any changes to their roles, work tasks and broader business changes, and where possible allow their input in decision making
  • Holding regular worker/team discussions on additional pressures/challenges
  • Providing 'time out' areas for workers to distance themselves and take breaks from demanding work tasks
  • Recognising and rewarding workers for their efforts.

Employers and workers requiring assistance can access a range of confidential helpline services:

  • Employee Assistance Programs
  • Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636
  • Lifeline: 13 11 4
  • MensLine Australia: 1300 789 978
  • Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800.

Learn more about your mental health responsibilities at work.

Notification of incidents

Employers should notify Comcare of any incident that is work-related and/or arises from the business or undertaking of the employer during flood and storm preparedness and response activities.

An incident is notifiable if it results from the conduct of a business or undertaking, and causes:

  • the death of a person
  • serious injury or serious illness of a person
  • a dangerous incident.

An infection that is contracted as a result of carrying out clean-up and recovery work is a notifiable incident.

Notify us of an incident.

Page last reviewed: 10 December 2021
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Comcare
GPO Box 9905, Canberra, ACT 2601
1300 366 979 | www.comcare.gov.au

Date printed 24 Jan 2022

https://www.comcare.gov.au/safe-healthy-work/prevent-harm/seasonal-hazards/flood-and-storm-hazards