Hong Kong has had three T8 typhoons and one T10 so far this summer, and the Hong Kong Observatory has warned that there may be more to come before the year is out.
Typhoons are no laughing matter – they can cause severe damage to property and injuries to people caught up in them – as evidenced by the trail of devastation left by Typhoon Hato recently in Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong province.
But for many employees, typhoons and rainstorms hold a different meaning. A typhoon signal eight or above, or a black rainstorm warning, raised during work hours can mean time, or in some cases, even a full day, off work.
Hong Kong legislation is generally silent on work arrangements during adverse weather conditions, although employers have general obligations to ensure the health and safety of their employees. The Labour Department has, however, issued guidance in this respect.
In general terms, employers should not, for safety reasons, require employees to report for work when a T8 typhoon signal or higher is hoisted, or when there is a black rainstorm warning in force, unless there is prior agreement with employees.
There are certain industries where there is a need to maintain essential services, such as public transport, medical services, hotels and so on. For these industries, the Labour Department requires employers to make “realistic and critical assessment of staff requirements” and only request employees who are “absolutely essential” to report for duty.
Where weather conditions deteriorate when employees are at work, the Labour Department urges employers to consider releasing all employees, other than essential staff, from work as early as possible. This is particularly the case for employees who may have a lengthy commute home.
Further, employers should not deduct the wages of employees who cannot attend work because of adverse weather conditions or other factors beyond their control, such as unavailability of public transport. Even if certain employees are required to be on duty under prior work arrangements, the Labour Department provides that employers should not automatically deduct their wages if they are absent or late for duty. Employers should instead see if there are extenuating circumstances which may have prevented staff from attending work.
And what if employees suffer an accident travelling to or from work during adverse weather conditions? This will be deemed a work injury if a T8 typhoon signal (or higher) or a red/black rainstorm warning is in force, provided the employee is travelling from home to the office within a period of four hours before their working hours begin or end that day. In that case, the employer may be liable to pay compensation to employees under the Employees’ Compensation Ordinance.
So, given that we may well see more storms in Hong Kong before the end of 2017, what should employers do and what should employees be aware of?
Firstly, employers should ensure they have an adverse weather policy in place. The Code of Practice in Times of Typhoons and Rainstorms issued by the Labour Department is a useful starting point.
An adverse weather policy should include, inter alia, provisions on work arrangements during typhoons and rainstorms, when employees are released from work if weather deteriorates, and when work resumes after a typhoon signal or rainstorm warning is lowered or cancelled.
For employers in industries where it is critical to continue business operations, it is important to devise a roster where certain employees may be required to attend work. This roster should be clearly communicated to employees so it is known when they may need to report for duty.
Employers who already have an adverse weather policy should ensure that it is reviewed and updated as necessary.
The policy should be accessible to employees and, where there is warning of a looming storm, employers should ensure that they remind employees of the policy.
For employees who make their way into the office during adverse weather conditions, it is important to inform the employer of their whereabouts for safety reasons. This can also be important from an insurance perspective as some insurers may not cover injuries to employees if they are not notified beforehand.
For now, despite the wreckage they can cause, typhoons and rainstorms are seen as time off work for many Hong Kong employees, or at the very least, time which they can spend at home with their loved ones, even if they are working remotely.
And in times where working hours can be long and strenuous, this may just be the silver lining in the (rain) cloud.
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Prepare for storms with adverse weather policy.