The ongoing war in Ukraine impacting upon the supply of energy to the world and the prospect of a cold winter, has led to the National Grid warning people in Great Britain that there is a possibility of rolling power cuts affecting UK businesses this winter. Whilst the National Grid has said it is unlikely to happen it has prompted employers to seek clarity on their options should it happen.
What are rolling power cuts and how would it work?
The Government has various powers under legislation to restrict the consumption of electricity by customers. The most likely action would be the introduction of a rota disconnection which is aimed at equally sharing out available power in a country or region through strategic shutdowns. In practical terms, this would mean households receiving advanced notice (typically by text message) of a three-hour block where they would lose their power. This would be carried out in different areas and at different times or days to limit the impact and disruption across the country. As areas of the country are divided into smaller circuits, this would enable cut-offs to be timetabled in a strategic manner.
What would this mean for businesses?
It is expected that certain businesses will be able to apply for ‘Protected Site’ status to avoid any planned cut-offs, subject to being a “Designated Service” and meeting criteria set out in the Government’s Electricity Supply Emergency Code i.e. airports, shipping ports, railways, oil refineries, food manufacturing are such services if they meet the rest of the criteria etc.
It is recognised that if businesses are not protected, any planned cut-offs could cause them to suffer huge financial losses and ultimately damage the economy and as such, planned outages are a step of last resort after all efforts have been made across all consumers to conserve energy.
What can employers do?
There are practical steps businesses can take to stay operational during any planned cut-offs.
Have a plan in place
It is always better to be as prepared as possible and therefore it is advisable for businesses to have a plan in place in advance of the winter to cover both planned and unplanned outages.
From a health and safety perspective employers could complete a risk assessment to ensure that the workplace remains safe during a period of shutdown, and if not what steps need to be taken to reduce the risk of a work related accident.
Reorganise work around planned outages
One of the options businesses could consider is whether they are able to adjust their usual business hours (where possible) to incorporate employees working at different times of the day or night (increased hours either side of the outages) to fulfil their duties and keep the business operational.
Use of Annual Leave
Conditional upon planned outages, it could be possible for employers to give notice to staff to use holiday leave up. Under the Working Time Regulations 1998, an employer can given notice to staff when to take holidays – such notice must be twice the period of the leave to be taken ie 1 days leave required 2 days advance notice. However, reports suggest that the National Grid will aim to inform the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy by 2pm the day before, with power restrictions beginning at 12:30am – so perhaps insufficient time to give adequate notice, though the notice provisions do not apply to contractual holiday leave over and above the statutory minimum.
This is of course also subject to employee’s having holiday leave left to use, bearing in mind that most employers run a holiday year in line with Calendar year or financial year – either way, this winter we will be towards the back end of any holiday year.
Lay-off/short time working
It maybe possible to place employee’s on lay-off or short time working and reduce pay accordingly. An employer would need to have a contractual clause permitting such lay-off/short time working or alternatively there by a clear custom and practice within the business or industry in doing so. However, given the intention that planned outages are intended to of short duration, and the impact of lay off/short time working can be negative, employers are encouraged to explore flexible hours/days of work to make up for lost time.
Now is a good time to revisit any homeworking policy to ensure it covers what employees are expected to do if they work from home during planned cut-offs. This could include tasks they are expected to do in the event of a planned cut-off or whether they are expected to take annual leave or make up the time if they are unable to carry out their duties.
Indeed, given the cost of living crisis along with potential planned/unplanned outages, employers also need to consider whether the temperature of an individual’s home is appropriate for home working or, if not, whether they need to attend the office where the employer can be in control.
A plan to deal with unplanned outages is strongly advisable.
Disaster recovery plans
Most businesses will already have a Disaster Recovery Plan in place to deal with unexpected shutdowns, closures, data recovery and cyber-attacks. They are designed to map out the process of resuming normal business operations, reconstructing or salvaging vital and other important records and equipment, and becomes a guide for all managers and employees during and after a disaster.
It is therefore worth reviewing such a plan with one eye on potential planned and unplanned outages. If a business doesn’t have a plan in place, it is advisable to prepare one now, not only for potential outages but for much wider disaster management.
Consider Portable generators and batteries
One of the best ways to prepare for a blackout is using a portable generator or battery. Batteries can be powered by solar energy or charged by the mains before a planned blackout to ensure there is enough power. As generators can be fuelled by diesel, gas and hydrotreated vegetable oil (to name but a few) this allows employers more options rather than limiting its use to electricity.
With many employees working remotely and businesses relying on cloud-based storage and virtual meetings unplanned disruptions to internet connectivity would be difficult to navigate. Employers can train their employees on how to use their mobile phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot (if their mobile phone network isn’t affected). Employees may also be encouraged to keep their work devices charged and to download or print out key documents in advance to work on without access to the internet or electricity.
An unplanned outage makes it more difficult to use annual leave. Likewise, an employer cannot just place an employee on unpaid leave without being in breach of contract, unless they have a lay-off and/or short time working clause in which case such clauses could be applied to manage the outage.
As such, having a plan to deal with unplanned outages, and communicated to staff, would be sensible – whether this forms part of your disaster recovery plan or is a standalone plan is a judgement call. The difficulty is that any unplanned outage would be of unknown duration and so an employer will need to be prepared for escalating steps depending on how long the outage last for.
Power disruptions are likely to affect an employee’s ability to meet deadlines and general performance. As ever, good communication with employees is paramount and communication prior to putting in place a detailed plan is advisable. Liaise with your works councils, employee forums or, for smaller organisations directly with staff. Importantly, let staff know what your approach will be. In turn, this will guide and support employee operations and their overall wellbeing.
Guidance for Employees
Employers should also consider giving practical advice to their employers in the event of a planned or unplanned blacked out, such as:
- ensuring they have fuel in their car
- they have sufficient stock of food and drinks
- plenty of warm clothing and blankets
Whilst the above advice seems more akin to 70s Britain, preparation is key to ensuring businesses can continue operating during planned and unplanned blackouts.