Preparing for bad weather

Bad weather can cause problems for staff and businesses alike – so what do employers need to bear in mind when the mercury drops?

According to forecasters, the UK looks set for a re-run of last year's severe snow and plummeting temperatures, with the accompanying travel chaos – and headlines about why the UK seems to be so uniquely underprepared for cold weather.  

Workplaces must by law be a 'reasonable temperature'

Stay safe, stay warm

Employers should consider whether they need to take any steps to ensure that workplaces are safe in cold weather, such as gritting outdoor areas and car parks. 

Employers are required under health and safety law to ensure that the workplace is a 'reasonable temperature' and the HSE Code of Practice recommends a minimum temperature of 16°C (or 13°C for rigorous physical work).  

In practice, many employees may feel uncomfortably cold at those temperatures – research suggests that this may particularly affect women, due to their lower metabolic rate – so to avoid a shivering, unhappy workforce, businesses may need to invest in extra heating or provide warmer uniforms.

Home comforts

If travel is likely to be disrupted it may be helpful to encourage office-based employees to work from home, although for many jobs – particularly in the transport sector – this won't be feasible. 

For this to work, employees will need to have adequate and safe facilities at home (and suitable childcare/arrangements for dependents).  

Bear in mind that an employer can't force an employee to work from home unless the contract provides for this, although employees may see this as a better option than taking annual leave or losing out on pay (see below).

Show me the money

Employers are not legally obliged to pay employees who are unable to attend work due to travel disruption or adverse weather, unless required to under an employment contract or collective agreement.  

But businesses may wish to take a pragmatic approach: They could agree to pay employees on a discretionary basis for one or two days' absence or, failing that, could offer employees the option of treating the absence as paid holiday. 

It may be worth having a 'travel disruption' policy in the staff handbook to set out guidelines on this. For drivers, management will no doubt have a contingency plan in place for those who simply cannot avoid being late or absent. 

Employers should also bear in mind the likelihood that childcare providers and schools may also be closed, so employees may have to take time off to care for dependents. Again, this statutory leave is unpaid.

Entitled to pay

By contrast, if an employer closes its premises, this is a temporary lay-off for which employees are entitled to be paid unless their contract specifies otherwise. If there is such a contract term, employees with a month's service or more who are available for work will be eligible to receive a guarantee payment.

Whatever approach a business chooses, it is far better to have thought about the issue in advance rather than making panicked decisions when the (snow)storm hits.