Due to a combination of world events such as the war in Ukraine and European energy supplies, National Grid has cautioned in its Winter Outlook report the remote prospect of the Electricity Supply Emergency Code being invoked this winter. In short, this means that the UK could face planned power cuts during peak periods (blackouts) to preserve reduced energy supplies from Europe. Consumers, including businesses who would likely be given at least a day’s notice of any such planned blackouts.
You can apply to your regional network operator to be defined as a ‘protected site’, which will continue to receive power supply during blackouts, and would be the last to be cut off in the eventuality of load shedding’ by National Grid, but there are rigorous tests to qualify and so, in reality, most businesses will be affected. This being the case, how can your business best prepare?
How to prepare your business for a blackout
There are some practical and contractual steps you can take in advance of any blackouts.
- You could start by checking your employment contracts to see if you have the ability to reduce hours or if you have a right to lay off employees. If you do, you may be able to invoke these rights if necessary, during a blackout period and therefore also reduce the payments due to employees during those times.
- If you do not have such a provision in your employment contracts (most will not) then you could still discuss agreeing to a change of working hours with your employee in specific circumstances.
- If necessary, you could also ask or oblige your employees to take annual leave on the days of the blackouts. If seeking to invoke this unilaterally, you will need to give the employee at least 2 days' notice for every day that you wish the employee to take as annual leave. However, you should initially consider whether any other options are viable.
- If your workplace allows, enable paper-based, non-electronic or non-internet reliant tasks, where possible or invest in standby generators or battery-operated devices which can be the power source for some tasks for a short period. If devices can be operated off battery power as well as mains, where notice is given of a blackout, request that employees fully charge those devices before the start of the blackout, so for example a laptop or mobile phone could be used for short intervals up to a few hours.
- If there is notice of a blackout and you can make arrangements so that the office will not be affected or will be minimally affected, request that employees attend the office where possible at that time so that they are not relying on other places not to be affected, such as their home.
- Provide your employees with some basic training and tips for a blackout, encouraging them to have battery operated light sources and other fully charged battery operated devices ready for a blackout as well as how to use their mobile phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot (if their mobile phone network isn’t affected). You may also encourage employees to be more effective with their time during a blackout by downloading or printing documents in advance to work on when internet access is not available or using their time to meet and discuss projects with others to work on when the power is back.
- You could introduce a policy to state more widely how blackouts will be dealt with.
Do you have to pay employees if they can’t work during a blackout?
- Normally if you need to send employees home because of power cuts, as they are willing and able to perform their role and you cannot provide the work, you will still be required to pay them. This is the case unless you have a specific clause on short time working or layoffs within your contracts of employment which could be invoked, thereby allowing for a reduction in pay should you be unable to provide work.
- If you do not have the contractual right to reduce the employee’s pay for short working or lay off periods, this would be an unlawful deduction of wages and a breach of contract. It is prudent to take legal advice before withholding payment on these grounds.
If you inserted a short time clause in your employee contracts you will be legally allowed to cut employee hours and pay indefinitely, unless the clause states otherwise. Employees could apply for redundancy and claim redundancy pay in certain circumstances so, again, it’s best to seek advice before taking such measures.
Employee health and safety considerations during a blackout
There are additional health and safety risks to consider during a blackout and a detailed risk assessment being carried out in advance can assist you identifying these risks to minimize or eliminate them and keep your workplace as safe as possible. These risks are likely to include:
- Travel - Is it safe for employees to travel to work? There are likely to be travel restrictions in place during a blackout if traffic lights, trains, trams and tubes cannot fully function and if your employee travels by electric vehicle they may not be able to charge it.
- Lighting - As an employer you have a responsibility to provide a safe working place for employees with adequate lighting in order to avoid obstacles and slips and trips better and prevent eye strain. If your workplace doesn’t have much natural light or your employees work outside of daylight hours, providing alternative forms of battery-operated lighting will be necessary.
- Heating - You must also provide a suitably warm temperature to work in, as a basic requirement. Heating should be no lower than 16 degrees Celsius or 13 degrees Celsius if employees are doing physical work, according to government guidance.
- Refrigeration and clean water – ensure that if fresh food requires refrigeration and has become warm for too long that this is not consumed to avoid food poisoning. If water purification may be a risk due to a power outage you should avoid employees drinking tap water and instead provide bottled water.
- Safety features and equipment – If fire, carbon monoxide, panic alarms or safety related monitoring systems are impacted by a loss of power, this may cause your workplace to be dangerous. Part of any risk assessment would be to review equipment or machinery and see what might be affected and whether this could be mitigated to avoid such dangers. You should have equipment regularly tested and serviced, and use should be in accordance with manufacturer guidelines to ensure further hazards aren’t caused. For example, generators can cause carbon monoxide hazards if used incorrectly and so employees should be regularly trained in their use. It is a good idea to switch off or unplug electrical devices or large pieces of machinery during a blackout.
- Evacuation - If a risk assessment does mean that your workplace is judged to be unsafe if a blackout happens, you will need to plan working time accordingly.
How will a blackout affect employee productivity?
The impact of a blackout on productivity will vary from business to business. If your business relies on a sales team making calls throughout the day to gain custom or relies on providing advice by email or over the telephone throughout the day, losing out on this revenue is likely to have more of an impact than if you run longer projects and do not have to report back in a tight timeframe.
If your business has another office, a generator or uninterrupted power supply for computers, the impact could be minimal. You should plan and prepare for as many eventualities as you can. It’s likely that any blackouts would be rotated so that different areas are affected at different times, which could make it more difficult to ensure all employees staff are online at the same time, but if you have offices or hybrid workers in different areas of the country, this will make you more agile and able to keep some services running. If you are given an advanced warning, you may look to alter your employees' working hours to avoid disruption to your business. Again, you will need to review your employee contracts before making changes, but if you are able to change the place, hours and means of working to avoid disruption to your business, it is worth considering the options or agreeing advantageous changes with employees, in advance.
Reduced productivity is more likely to be an issue for your business if your IT systems are not resilient, as employees that work from home are reliant on IT to communicate effectively and data loss and the inability to meet client deadlines are a very real prospect.
If you can provide training to employees before a blackout about saving their work at regular intervals, to avoid data loss and how to carry out their work during a blackout and prepare your employees to carry out any contingency plans you make, productivity is less likely to be less negatively affected.
How should I communicate with employees during a blackout?
If you have already established an open and regular dialogue with your employees about blackout preparations in advance, this will help employees know how you would like them to communicate with you, their colleagues and other company contacts during a blackout.
If you know that your workplace will not be impacted by the power cuts, you could ask employees who usually work remotely to come to work. This way, even if your business were to lose power you could communicate face to face, if you are in the same building. It is important to bear in mind though that this could create issues for employees with childcare commitments or care responsibilities, for example, and so may not be suitable for everyone. You should ensure that you are fair and non-discriminatory in your requests. Again, if you have established what is possible for each employee prior to a blackout this will lead to better efficiency when a blackout occurs.
If electronic means of communication such as telephones, emails and instant messaging are limited or not possible either for homeworkers or those in the office, you will need to think more creatively as to how you can communicate. Mobile telephone messages and calls may work for a limited period, but if employees do not have work mobiles you will need to consider compensating employees for the minutes they use, and employees may be reluctant to give out their personal phone numbers. Mobile hotspots for internet access may work for a short period of time, provided mobile reception is available, but this is a temporary fix.
Consider risks and options to mitigate those risks and keep your business running as effectively as possible during blackouts, in advance. Ensure that you consult with employees and keep them informed about how you plan to deal with specific elements of blackouts. This will save time and resources and reduce risk to employees and your business. If you have any questions about changing employee terms, health and safety risks or any other aspect of preparing for a blackout, our employment lawyers can help.