Rolling blackouts: what does HR need to know?

With the potential for power outages threatening the UK, People Management asks the experts how businesses can best prepare

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With the energy crisis looming overhead, John Pettrigrew, CEO of the National Grid has issued an ominous warning of potential rolling blackouts and power outages to UK businesses this winter.

Warning of the “deepest, darkest evenings in January and February, Pettrigrew attributed the low energy supplies to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has put a significant strain on the UK power grid. And, while these are said to be “unlikely”, there is still a risk of forced implemented blackouts – which will come in the form of rolling, three-hour cuts to the power between 4-7pm – to manage demand.

Following the news, People Management asked employment lawyers and HR experts what businesses need to know, and what they can do to prepare.

Preparation and planning is key

The possibility of energy outages this winter, according to Amanda Lennon, employment partner and head of HR and wellbeing at law firm Spencer West, "will be very worrying to everyone.”

Since so many businesses now allow employees to work from home more frequently thanks to Covid, they must plan and consider the possibility of internet connectivity problems during blackouts, she said, adding that businesses “might not be able to put in place extensive contingency arrangements if they do not receive notice of the blackouts”.

Lennon continued that it was crucial to consider the effects on employees and their workloads, for example, by extending deadlines so tasks can be completed once the power is turned back on. “Employees should not be penalised for performance if it is impacted by a blackout,” she urged. “Good employers will start communicating with staff early on about how the blackouts could impact their business and workplaces, and the support or considerations they will put in place for employees as a result.”

Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, stressed that although the warning is very much a worst-case scenario, businesses should still take certain precautions immediately. “It’s beneficial to consider implementing emergency management policies which may cover situations such as widespread power outages,” said Palmer. “Doing so helps them to be prepared and avoid panic during unexpected events.”

She added that employers should review existing policies for a shortage of work clause as, “this may enable them to place staff on short-time working, and reduce pay to time-worked only, during blackout periods”.

Put employee safety first

The prospect of a blackout, loss of gas or other energy source is naturally a cause for concern. Daniel Zona, an associate at Collyer Bristow's Employment Law practice, said that if these do come to fruition, “employers may need backup plans”.

But, he added, contrary to popular belief, there is no legal requirement to keep a workplace at a certain temperature. “Despite official recommendations that the majority of workplaces should typically be at least 16 degrees celsius, there is no rule specifying what temperature should be maintained in a workspace,” he claimed.

Nishma Chudasama, employment solicitor at SA Law, said that other legal implications must be taken into account, particularly when it comes to health and safety. “Before a blackout, employers should do risk analyses and take the required steps to provide a safe workplace for their staff,” said Chudasama, adding that this will “lessen the likelihood” of an accident and any ensuing legal action.

Meanwhile, Gillian Littlewood, manager of IOSH Advice and Practice Application, said that when giving consideration to blackouts, “the proper selection and maintenance of Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPS) for safety-critical equipment is particularly vital in high-hazard industries, such as the process and offshore sectors.”

Littlewood noted that, “disaster preparedness [is] more crucial than saving lives or even lessening the effects of an accident”, and that effective emergency plans show how highly a company values its most valuable asset: its employees.

David Jepps, employment partner at Keystone Law said that employers should consider issuing policies anticipating power outages but with “health and safety as a priority.”

“Employees shouldn’t be forced to work where there is a reasonable prospect of danger and such scenarios could allow employees to make unfair dismissal claims without needing the usual two years employment,” he said.

Be flexible with solutions

There are several practical measures that HR departments can take to support staff should these blackouts roll out, said Rita Trehan, founder of Dare Worldwide and former chief people officer at AGL. These include "encouraging employees to keep their phones, tablets, and computers fully charged while they are at work so they may, if possible, continue to work offline."

In addition, she said, businesses should embrace in-person work and regard it as a chance for learning and development to maximise team potential because "technology is a tool, not a crutch."

Melanie Stancliffe, a partner in Cripps' employment practice, said it would be entirely unreasonable to anticipate "business as usual" if the UK experiences blackouts this winter.

She said employers should take simple steps to prepare, by allowing more flexibility in the workplace and providing solutions. “Blackouts frequently cause technological and practical disruption in organisations. Businesses should think about generators for the upcoming colder winter months in case the heat and lights go out,” she added.

Be mindful of employee wellbeing 

Oliver McCann, partner in employment law and human resources at Napthens, said to guide employees and colleagues through the interruption of either scheduled or unintentional blackouts this winter would demand “communication and a detailed plan”, and that early planning would be more supportive of staff wellbeing.

He added that companies could experiment with changing their regular business hours to include personnel working at various times of the day or night to fulfil their responsibilities and keep the business operating during planned blackouts.

“It may be possible for employers to give notice to staff to use up holiday leave. Under the Working Time Regulations 1998, an employer can give notice to staff when to take holidays, but the notice must be twice the period of the leave to be taken.”

But Alexandra Mizzi, solicitor at Howard Kennedy, said if businesses must close, “there may not be a legal right for companies to send employees home without pay” unless they have lave layoff or short-time working provisions in their contracts or where staff are engaged on zero hour contracts.

Laura Reilly, HR employment law director, argued that companies should consider how isolation would affect many people in the event of a blackout, particularly those who had little opportunity for social connection and those who are furloughed.

“If people can't afford to eat well or stay warm, we might see an increase in absence rates.

As a result, presenteeism may rise as people sacrifice their coworkers' physical wellbeing to stay warm at the office.”