3 Workplace Safety Tips to Prepare for a Natural Disaster in California

By Patrick J. Wingfield and Kavin A. Williams October 16, 2018
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Natural disasters can hit at any time, and California employers need to be prepared—and help their workers be ready as well. Before a disaster strikes, employers should plan ahead and tell their employees about the benefits and resources available to help them recover from natural disasters. Here are some tips for employers on how to handle workplace safety, plan for emergencies and give workers information about government assistance after a disaster.

1. Review Cal/OSHA standards.

Every employer has a legal obligation to provide and maintain a safe and healthy workplace for employees. Employers should be familiar with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration's requirements and recommendations and plan for any safety hazards or health risks that natural disasters can pose. For example, smoke from wildfires may contain chemicals, gases and fine particles that can be hazardous to employees who breathe in the smoke. To protect workers exposed to wildfire smoke, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) recommends that employers take specific precautions, including offering approved respiratory protective equipment for employees working in outdoor locations.

2. Develop an emergency action plan.

Employers are required to comply with Cal/OSHA's disaster planning standard, and it is critical that they plan ahead. Implement mandatory procedures for responding to wildfires and other natural disasters, and communicate those procedures to employees in writing. These policies and procedures should:

  • Describe the actions to be taken to protect employees from fires and other emergencies.
  • Explain how employees should respond during a fire.
  • Let employees know when they can—or should—work from home or an alternative workplace. 

Additionally, employers should designate in advance personnel who is authorized to make the final decision to shut down the workplace. 

3. Inform workers about government resources.

Employers should be aware of and inform their employees about federal, state and local assistance that is available during or after a natural disaster.

The California Employment Development Department (EDD) provides disaster-related services to individuals and businesses in California. The EDD may offer unemployment insurance benefits to employees who are displaced from their positions. Such benefits are generally available for up to 26 weeks but can be extended in certain circumstances. The EDD also assists displaced employees with the filing of benefit claims, job searches and other resources.

If the governor issues an emergency proclamation for a specific disaster area, additional benefits may be available for businesses and employees. Governor emergency proclamations typically waive the one-week waiting period for benefit payments. If waived, eligible employees can be paid benefits for the first week they are unemployed due to the emergency.

Additionally, California employers in areas that are directly affected by a disaster may request extensions for filing and paying state payroll taxes. 

Federal disaster unemployment assistance (DUA) may also be available to supplement state and local aid. DUA provides temporary unemployment benefits to workers who lose their jobs as a direct result of a presidentially declared major disaster. Benefits will be paid to workers who:

  • No longer have a job.
  • Are unable to reach their workplace.
  • Can't work due to damage to the worksite.
  • Can't work because of a disaster-incurred injury.
  • Are seeking a job because the head of their household died during the disaster.

In addition to state and federal resources, aid may be available from city or county agencies. Employers should check the applicable local government's website to see what resources are provided.

Patrick J. Wingfield and Kavin A. Williams are attorneys with Murphy Pearson Bradley & Feeney in San Francisco.

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