Is your business prepared for energy blackouts and bad weather this winter?

People carrying out a health & safety risk assessment

The head of the National Grid has warned that UK households could face blackouts this winter if energy supplies run low due to the disruption of the war in Ukraine. John Pettigrew recently stated that electricity and gas may be switched off on “those deepest, darkest evenings in January and February” between 4pm and 7pm on “really, really cold” winter weekdays.

In addition to the risk of blackouts, extreme cold weather, heavy snow and high winds can cause huge disruption for workers and businesses.

Commenting on this challenging and unpredictable backdrop, senior Mentor Health & Safety advisor Kevin Boyle recommends that “during these difficult times, the safety and wellbeing of employees should be a priority for all businesses to ensure a safe and healthy workforce and workplace. Planning in advance will help to achieve this”. It is important therefore that employers consider what steps they can take now to manage these risks and safeguard staff.

See Mentor’s top tips below to help your business prepare for blackouts and bad weather:

Planning ahead

Employers should put in place policies and procedures to deal with adverse weather or blackouts. Having written procedures in place will help improve staff communication and ease any concerns or anxieties people may have, whilst also ensuring your business has prepared for all possibilities. Areas to cover include:

  • information on pay in the event staff are unable to attend work or where the business has to close on a temporary basis
  • contact information and keeping in touch obligations - staff should know who to contact in the event of bad weather or blackouts and employers need to ensure they have up to date emergency contact information for all staff
  • communication obligations - businesses should commit to keeping employees updated on any travel disruption / extreme weather forecasts / planned blackouts / contingency plans

Offering flexible working arrangements

Staff may be concerned about travelling into work due to bad weather or scheduled blackouts - consider offering alternative working arrangements such as:

  • homeworking - ensuring appropriate measures have been implemented to enable this (e.g. risk assessments / workstation / access to technical equipment)
  • working from a different location
  • adjusting working hours on a temporary basis - such as allowing staff to come into work later or leave earlier / adjusting work patterns to avoid any planned blackouts (any changes to terms and conditions will need to be agreed with affected staff)
  • taking annual leave or unpaid time off (see Legal Considerations section at the foot of this article)

Working during a blackout

Although it may not always be possible for businesses to operate during a blackout, consider if you can put in place arrangements that would allow for this, such as:

  • using standby generators to maintain power supply for critical equipment or facilities
  • using Wi-Fi hotspots - employees should be trained on how to access these (ensuring they have available mobile data and providing the network isn’t disrupted by blackouts)
  • asking employees who normally work from home to come into the workplace (or vice-versa)
  • keeping phones / laptops fully charged (ensuring battery time is still effective without the use of power)

Managing health & safety

Employers have a legal obligation to safeguard their employees’ health, safety and welfare at work. This includes providing a safe working environment and systems of work. Employers should put in place appropriate measures to manage any health & safety risks connected to any work that is carried out during bad weather or blackouts (including those who work from home).

For example, this might include providing staff training on how to safely operate generators, or providing step-by-instructions on how to safely deal with a loss of power, light or heating, ensuring appropriate back-up equipment is available (e.g. torches / blankets / gas heaters etc) and staff know how to use these. It may also be beneficial to ensure that your employees mental health and wellbeing is carefully managed during what could be difficult times - this could simply be by staying in touch and offering any support they may require.

Legal considerations

Do I have to pay my employees if they can’t get into work?

Employees have a legal obligation to come to work in order to be entitled to pay. If they are unable to attend work due to bad weather or blackouts, they will not be entitled to pay (unless the business offers paid leave in these circumstances - always check what the policy and employment contract states and take legal advice if in doubt).

It is worthwhile considering ways that would ensure employees are still paid despite being unable to attend the workplace due to extreme weather or blackouts, for example:

  • offering a set amount of paid leave in the event of bad weather / blackouts (this should be pro-rated for part-time staff)
  • asking staff to take annual leave (or forcing annual leave subject to contractual rules and giving the required notice)
  • offering flexi-working arrangements so that staff can work back the missed hours another time
  • asking staff to work at an alternative workplace or to work from home

What if the workplace has to close on a temporary basis? Do I still have to pay my employees?

Extreme weather conditions or rolling blackouts could result in the temporary closure of businesses. If this happens, most employees (who are contracted to work on the day of the closure) would still be entitled to their normal pay. The exception to this rule would be if the employer implements lay-offs or short-time working during affected periods - employers can only lawfully do this if the employment contract allows for this or with the full agreement of the affected employees. Employees who are laid off or put on short-time working may still be entitled to a guarantee payment, subject to qualifying conditions, but would not be entitled to normal pay.

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