Power cuts and blackouts: the next big concern for employers?

Dec Connolly Editor

Email business@thebusinessjournal.co.uk

silhouette of people in dark lobby

Warnings of potential power cuts this winter are a concern for employers.

Coming hot on the heels of the challenges businesses faced over the last two years, reports that homes and businesses across England, Scotland and Wales could see their power shut-off this winter, for three hours at a time, are not what any employer wants to hear.

Although currently deemed an ‘unlikely’ scenario, the warning follows concerns over energy supplies in Europe and the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Kate Palmer, HR Advice and Consultancy Director at Peninsula, says regardless of the likelihood, there are steps that employers should take now:

“Although this warning is very much a worst-case scenario situation and the Prime Minister has said we are in a good position, preparation is key. While essential businesses, including transport and NHS hospitals, would be exempt from power cuts, other businesses should start thinking about their emergency management protocol now.

“If blackouts do become a reality, households and business owners should receive at least one day’s notice to prepare.

“It may be possible to adjust working hours to accommodate the power cuts, depending on what industry a business is in. Altering shift times or changing opening hours is one way to keep things up and running and avoid too much disruption to day-to-day operations.

“Employers will also need to consider how the power cuts will affect remote or hybrid workers. It’s likely that any blackouts would be rotated to help ensure that different areas are affected at different times, but this could make it more difficult to ensure all staff are online at the same time.

“If you know employees won’t have internet access for certain parts of the day you can prepare by implementing a switch to short-hour days or bringing in a mix of shorter and longer days as needed.

“However, if you know that your workplace will not be impacted by the power cuts, you could ask staff who usually work remotely to come into work. It is important to bear in mind though that this could create issues for staff with childcare commitments or caring responsibilities, for example, and so may not be suitable for everyone.

“If you need to send employees home early because of power cuts, you will still be required to pay them. This is the case unless you have a specific clause on short time working within your contracts of employment, allowing for a reduction in pay should you be unable to provide work.

“As always, it is best to create an open channel of communication between you and your employees. Be sure to put plans in place that allow you to operate fairly and flexibly, getting the best from your employees and maintaining business productivity.”

There are also significant safety issues that could arise from power cuts in the workplace. Gavin Scarr Hall, Director of Health & Safety at Peninsula, says “You often won’t get much notice of a power outage, so planning will help ensure that work doesn’t grind to a halt if the electricity supply is interrupted.

“Take inventory of the items you need and look at alternative ways of powering them, such as generators, portable chargers, or power banks.

“Be aware that generators come with their own hazards, especially carbon monoxide (CO). Install working CO detectors in the building and ensure that all generators, and fuel, are kept outdoors, at least 20 feet away from windows and doors. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions closely and carry out risk assessments and training, to be sure that employees know how to use them safely.

“Slips and trips are a major hazard in low light, as it gets harder to see obstructions and obstacles. Keep pedestrian routes clear and check your emergency lighting regularly for faults. If your workplace doesn’t have much natural light or your staff work outside of daylight hours,  provide torches and battery-powered lamps for extra light.

“It’s easy to forget the health hazards associated with power outages. Talk to local authorities to check water is safe to drink – water purification systems may have malfunctioned, so keep a supply of bottled water on hand.

“Check the temperature of any fridges during and after any blackouts. Perishable foods may expire and become inedible if they’ve been exposed to temperatures of 40 degrees Fahrenheit or higher for 2 hours or more.

“Above all, make sure you involve your employees when planning for power outages. They will have their own concerns and worries, especially if the power goes out unexpectedly.  Make sure that they are familiar with the plan for how the business will respond. Knowing that an employer is prepared for power outages will help avoid any unnecessary panic or distress. This foresight could save both time and resources and prevent you from putting employees in a dangerous situation should the power go off.”