Health & safety in the winter: How to prepare for electricity shortages

Gemma O'Connor - Services and Operations Manager

October 26 2022

First published: 26/10/2022
Last updated: 26/10/2022

The Commission for Regulation of Utilities has advised electricity suppliers that there is likely to be serious challenges meeting demand for power this winter.

For business owners, blackouts risk placing high levels of stress on both physical infrastructure and human resources.

A risk assessment in regards to this is recommended, and here we look at the HR and health & safety issues to consider in preparation for what could be a dark winter.

Anticipate how the workplace will be impacted

Blackouts of any duration can cause significant disruption to your business. Given that both domestic and business users have been warned of potential blackouts this winter, it’s a good idea to have contingency plans in place.

Your contingency plans will be dictated by the level of disruption any potential blackout is likely to cause.

For some business owners, protecting IT infrastructure will be the priority. In addition, if some or all of your staff work remotely, electronic communications might be impacted.

Retail and hospitality businesses will likely need to make tough decisions around whether it’s viable to remain open during blackouts.

A manufacturing business will need to consider what production lines remain operational if a power cut hits.

Your contingency plan will therefore need to meet the particular challenges a blackout poses to your business. 

HR issues during a blackout

It may be unviable or unsafe to continue operating your premises during a blackout. If a blackout results in business closure, you will have some difficult HR issues to consider. 

Do I pay staff during a business closure?

A key priority for employers is the question of payment of wages if your business is closed. In general, if employees are ready, willing and available for work, you may face consequences if you withhold pay during a business closure.

It remains to be seen if the Government will consider stepping in to provide temporary employee benefits that support businesses and employees during blackout-related closures.

Asking staff to use annual leave or flexible working arrangements

While it may be possible to ask employees to take annual leave to cover days your business is closed, you are also required to give staff notice of your intention to do so. Annual leave must also take the employee’s need for rest and recreation into account.

If staff are agreeable, you could explore the possibility of using flexible working, parental leave or other forms of unpaid leave during a blackout-related business closure.

Layoff and short-time during a business closure

If your business has no work for staff due to blackouts, you may have a right to place employees on layoff or short-time. Both measures are designed to allow employers to survive a temporary downturn where there is a reasonable belief that work will pick up again. Pay may be reduced or suspended during periods of layoff or short time and social welfare payments may be available to affected employees.

There is no statutory legal right to make layoffs or put staff on short-time so it’s important to have a relevant clause (sometimes referred to as a LOST clause) in your contract of employment.

A LOST clause will permit you to implement layoffs or short-time working even where the staff concerned don’t agree to the changes. Many employers have included LOST clauses in their employment contracts following on from the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic.

If your contract of employment doesn’t reserve your right to put employees on layoff or short-time, you should try to secure express agreement from the employees concerned before confirming the period of layoff or short-time.

Health & Safety issues during a blackout

Blackouts will present a particular set of health & safety risks in the workplace. Both employers and staff have a general duty of care to ensure the safety, health and welfare at work of employees and colleagues under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005. From an employer’s perspective, the following safety considerations may be relevant during any power outages.

Update your risk assessment

Your risk assessment may not include information on the risks and control measures that apply during a blackout. For instance, it’s likely that your workplace will not have sufficient light or heating to operate safely if electricity supply runs out. Communications systems may go down along with machinery or plant and equipment. It’s important to identify the health & safety risks of continuing to operate in these circumstances. 

If your workplace relies on an emergency generator, it should also be checked and serviced where necessary and all staff involved in its operation should receive up to date training on how it works.

If you intend to continue operating your workplace during a blackout, you should ensure you have carried out a detailed risk assessment identifying the risks and hazards of working through these particular circumstances and all relevant control measures.

Staff communication and mental health

The prospect of blackouts this winter is worrying both for you as a business owner and your employees.

Staff are also likely to be feeling anxious about their finances due to the cost-of-living crisis. When deciding on your response to blackouts, you should consider how your plans will impact staff and their mental health.

By engaging with staff, you are more likely to hit on mutually satisfactory solutions that will keep you in business during power shortages. This approach should also reassure staff that you are keeping them in mind as you plan for the uncertain winter ahead.

And if you have an EAP service, now is the time to promote it. And if you don’t have one, consider setting up an EAP to promote wellbeing in your workplace.

To find out more about how to prepare for potential blackouts, or to learn about our health & safety services, call 1800 719 216.

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