The ability of an employer to provide a safe working environment, or the ability of an employee to travel safely to work, may be compromised during severe weather scenarios. The main legislation providing for the health and safety of people in the workplace is the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Acts. This legislation applies to all employers, employees (including fixed-term and temporary employees) and self-employed people in their workplaces. The applicable legislation sets out the rights and obligations of both employers and employees and provides for substantial fines and penalties for breaches of health and safety legislation.
Under Irish health and safety legislation, an employer has a duty to ensure the employees’ safety, health and welfare at work as far as is reasonably practicable. In situations where deteriorating weather conditions are likely to have a material impact on the ability of employers and employees to travel or work securely, an employer will be required to carry out a risk assessment for the workplace to identify any arising and material hazards present, assess the risks arising from such hazards and identify the steps to be taken to deal with any risks. In making such an assessment, employers should have due regard to the following considerations:
- Where an employee has the capacity to carry out their work from home for the duration of the disruption, this should be considered and agreed with the company. This may not be feasible for a number of roles where the employee’s presence is required;
- Where an employee cannot attend and cannot carry out his or her normal duties, the options of annual leave or unpaid time off should be considered. Daily approval of this may be required;
- Where employees arrive late or leave early, whilst some flexibility may be provided, employers need to consider paid leave where the employees will work up the time missed at a later date, preferably within one month of the occurrence. This is usually more feasible in companies that already operate a flexi-time system. Alternatively, the option of unpaid leave or annual leave (broken into hours) may be considered;
- Where an employee is away on company business and unable to make it back to the site in Ireland, it may be possible for them to work electronically from a remote location. Employers should facilitate, where appropriate, for the employee to work from an international office. Any additional expenses (e.g., accommodation, meals) incurred by the employee during this time may be paid by the employer;
- Should an employee be on annual leave when a weather-related event occurs and is unable to return to work due to travel restrictions, employers may use a pragmatic approach and allow the employee to extend their annual leave or authorise unpaid leave during this time; and
- In the case of schools or crèches closing, an emergency leave situation may result for some staff. This does not fall under the legal definition of force majeure leave. Where the employee is unable to make alternative arrangements, annual leave or unpaid leave could be considered on a case-by-case basis.
A practical policy and procedure dealing with situations of severe weather should be incorporated into the company handbook to serve as a ready reference regarding the guidelines to be observed in the event the company being forced to stay closed, or if the employees will be required to report for work, during adverse weather conditions.
The categorical statement of said policies and procedures will provide companies with a useful framework for discerning whether the employer’s treatment of employees in relation to adverse weather conditions encroaches on the health and safety, or employment rights, of their employees.