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WR 2010/2: Natural disaster warnings and agency leave arrangements


Please refer to the following circulars instead:

The purpose of this advice is to ensure a consistent approach across Australian Government employment for leave arrangements where an official warning or alert has been issued regarding a ‘catastrophic’ or ‘code red’ bushfire emergency, or other serious natural disaster.

Catastrophic emergencies

2. A catastrophic emergency is an event that affects one or more communities and exceeds the capability of existing State and Territory emergency and disaster management arrangements to immediately meet the needs of those requiring assistance. A catastrophic emergency may be of sudden or sustained impact that will take a considerable time period to recover, resulting in widespread, devastating, economic, health, social and environmental consequences.1

3. The Australian Emergency Management Arrangements (the Arrangements) require that the Australian Government support Australians affected by catastrophic emergency situations. The Arrangements prescribe a collaborative approach to emergency management on Local, State/Territory, and National levels. Consistent with this collaborative approach, the Bureau of Meteorology and State and Territory emergency warnings should be used to identify emergency ratings for bushfires, tropical cyclones, server weather, tsunamis and major floods.

4. Accordingly, it can be expected that Australian Government employees and workplaces will, from time to time, be affected by natural disaster warnings or alerts.

5. The declaration of ‘catastrophic’ emergency alerts in ‘at risk’ localities is administered by State and Territory Governments. APS Agencies should refer to the relevant State or Territory Government emergency management information for further detail on the emergency alert ratings in that jurisdiction.

Leave arrangements during catastrophic emergency alerts

6. In the event of a catastrophic emergency alert or warning, agencies should be aware of their duties as an employer, including obligations under occupational health and safety legislation to exercise an appropriate duty of care towards their employees.

7. Accordingly, in situations where an employee is prevented from attending work on the basis of a catastrophic emergency warning affecting their home or workplace or it would be too dangerous for an employee to travel to work as a result of the emergency, agencies should allow employees to access paid leave entitlements in accordance with the scale and nature of the emergency.

8. Where a paid miscellaneous or special leave entitlement is available (most commonly through the provisions of an enterprise or collective agreement) and the scope of that entitlement would cover emergency leave, it is preferred that paid miscellaneous or special leave be provided in the first instance.

9. Where access to miscellaneous leave is not available, personal leave should be accessed (where available) or another form of accrued leave (e.g. annual leave).

10. All leave for this purpose should count as service. Such leave may be approved retrospectively depending on the nature of the emergency and the individual circumstances of employees. These practices are broadly consistent with those of State and Territory Governments in relation to their own employees.

11. The above arrangements are to apply until the responsible State or Territory emergency management authority has declared the period of emergency to have passed. Beyond this, further leave requests are to be considered on a case by case basis in accordance with the legal and policy framework and operational requirements.

12. Where an employee is already on pre-approved leave during a catastrophic bushfire emergency, then the employee shall remain absent from work in accordance with that pre-approved leave.

Specific emergency alerts

‘Catastrophic’ or ‘Code Red’ Category bushfire emergencies

13. The Bureau of Meteorology and individual State and Territory emergency management agencies provide scaled bushfire weather warning alerts. Fire danger ratings range from Low‐Moderate to Catastrophic or ‘code red’. Please note that fire danger ratings may vary in individual States and Territories and fire danger ratings of affected localities should be referred to in the event of a catastrophic emergency.

14. In the event of a catastrophic bushfire emergency, State and Territory emergency management agencies will be recommending the evacuation of identified localities as the best option for survival. Such a declaration would impact upon any Australian Government workplace within an ‘at risk’ locality, as well as any employees remaining at home to prepare their properties against an imminent bushfire threat and subsequently due to school closures and broader community evacuations.

15. The Bureau of Meteorology website provides further information on the national Fire Danger Rating scale adopted in October 2009. Bushfire information in individual States and Territories is available from the following links:

Severe thunderstorm warnings

16. Severe Thunderstorm warnings are issued by the Bureau of Meteorology. Severe thunderstorms can cause significant localised damage through damaging wind gusts, large hail, tornadoes or flash flooding.

17. The complexities involved in detecting thunderstorms, assessing their severity and predicting how they will move and evolve can affect accurate prediction of severe thunderstorms. Severe thunderstorms should not be expected to occur everywhere in the warning area or for the entire period covered by the warning2. Furthermore, warnings may not provide much advance notice and are usually issued only after evidence of severe thunderstorms has been received3. Consequently, in the case of a severe thunderstorm warning, agencies should consider the circumstances on a case by case basis when approving leave.

Major flood warnings

18. Flood warnings are issued by the Bureau of Meteorology. Flooding is rated on a scale from minor to major. In the event of major flooding, extensive land areas are inundated. Properties and towns are likely to be isolated and major traffic routes likely to be closed. Evacuation of people from flood affected areas may be required.

19. In the event of a major flood, it is likely that employees will be unable to attend work. Taking into account the specific circumstances of the warning issued, employees should also be granted access to available leave entitlements as described above in the event of a major flood warning affecting an employee’s home or workplace.

Tropical cyclone warnings

20. Tropical cyclone warnings are issued by the Bureau of Meteorology. Tropical cyclones are categorised from Category 1 to Category 5, with Categories 3-5 being rated as ‘severe tropical cyclones’.

21. Taking into account the specific circumstances of the warning issued, employees should also be granted access to available leave entitlements as described above in the event of a tropical cyclone warning affecting an employee’s home or workplace.

Tsunami warnings

22. Tsunami warnings are issued by the Bureau of Meteorology. Like tropical cyclones, tsunamis can be highly destructive in affected areas.

23. Taking into account the specific circumstances of the warning issued, employees should also be granted access to available leave entitlements as described above in the event of a tsunami warning affecting an employee’s home or workplace.

Other severe weather events

24. The warning notices described above are not intended to be a definitive list. Warnings may be issued for other severe weather events such as wind gusts, blizzards, flash floods, large hail and storm tides. As with other warning notices, agencies should grant access to available leave entitlements appropriate to the circumstances.

Employees affected by school closures and other carers' responsibilities

25. Where school closures occur as a consequence of their location in a locality subject to an emergency warning as described above, agencies are reminded that employees are entitled to personal/carer’s leave where an unexpected emergency affects a family member (section 97(b)(ii) of the Fair Work Act 2009 (FW Act) refers). Section 107 of the FW Act requires an employee in this scenario to provide the employer with notice of the taking of leave as soon as practicable, including an estimation of the total expected period of leave. After the period of related leave, Agencies may request employees to provide evidence supporting their reasons for taking the leave if necessary.

26. The same principles should apply to other disaster warnings affecting an employee’s carer responsibilities.

Travel to areas subject to emergency warnings

27. Agencies should carefully consider the need for employees to undertake travel to areas which are subject to an emergency warning. While such decisions are ultimately a matter for agency discretion, it is recommended that non‐essential travel be cancelled or postponed to minimise any potential risk to employees.

Leave entitlements following a natural disaster

28. While this advice focuses on leave entitlements in the event of a disaster warning being issued, agencies are reminded of the need to provide an appropriate and compassionate response to employees’ needs after a natural disaster has occurred. To this end, leave entitlements should be granted in accordance with the principles outlined above and the needs of the affected employees.

Community service volunteers (Emergency services)

29. Agencies are reminded of their obligations under the National Employment Standards (NES) regarding community service leave entitlements for employees engaging in volunteer emergency management activities (section 108 of the FW Act).

30. Consistent with Part 4.2 of the Australian Government Employment Bargaining Framework (Bargaining Framework) Supporting Guidance, Agencies may determine their own approach to these employment practices provided they remain consistent with the broader Government policy of support for these functions. The provision of unpaid leave to community service personnel for emergency services duties should encompass leave for regular training, all emergency services responses, reasonable recovery time and ceremonial duties.

Occupational health and safety obligations

31. All employers have a legal duty, through the various occupational health and safety laws that apply in each state and territory and the Commonwealth, to provide a safe workplace and to protect the health and wellbeing of employees. These obligations extend to circumstances involving natural disasters and the need to ensure that workers are adequately protected from risks to personal harm in these circumstances. Agencies should remain mindful of these obligations at all times when considering their response to disaster warnings and advice.

Further information and advice

32. Detailed information on the Australian Emergency Management Arrangements can be found at Emergency Management Australia

33. Further information for individual Emergency Danger ratings can be found on the Bureau of Meteorology’s weather warning webpage and emergency procedures can be found on individual State and Territory emergency management websites.

34. Should you require any further information or assistance on this matter, please contact your APSC Client Contact directly, email agebf [at] apsc.gov.au, or telephone (02) 6202 3704 to be directed to the appropriate person.

Helen Bull
Branch Manager
Public Sector Branch

1 The Attorney-General’s Department, Australian Emergency Management Arrangements (2009) 17.

2 Bureau of Meteorology Severe Thunderstorms online reference: http://www.bom.gov.au/info/thunder/

3 ibid

Last reviewed: 
19 July 2018