As the ‘Beast from the East’ and Storm Emma collide, people face difficult decisions about whether they brave the extreme weather and head to work, or stay at home where it’s safe and dry.
The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has called on bosses not to force staff to make dangerous commutes in the snow. The warning comes after a seven-year-old girl in Cornwall died after a car crashed into a house and a 46-year-old van driver died after a collision involving a lorry. While on 2 March, Network Rail revealed five trains had been stranded overnight on the route between London and Weymouth, leaving some passengers without food, power and heat.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “When the snow causes problems on the roads and trains it is common sense for bosses to let their staff work from home rather than struggle with a lengthy and potentially dangerous commute.
“No one should be made to put their health at risk to get to work or be punished by losing pay or holiday when they can’t get in because of the weather.”
So what are your legal rights as a worker when it snows?
What happens if you can’t get to work because public transport is not working?
Richard Ryan, employment law barrister at Parklane Plowden Chambers, said it depends on the company and its policies. “Your employer may have policies on these issues, such as a bad weather policy. Look at them and consider if it helps,” he explained. “In any event, an employee may have a right to unpaid leave and reasonable efforts should be made to attend work.”
Generally, people should be provided with a copy of the company’s policies when they are hired. If they haven’t been, they should ask their HR department, or if they haven’t got one, their manager.
Ryan added that if your workplace is closed but you are ready, willing and able to work then “you should be paid in full for the day”.
Can employees be sent home if the working conditions are too cold?
According to Ryan, they should be. “Employers have health and safety obligations,” he explained. “The office should normally be at least 16 degrees Celsius or 13 degrees if a lot of the work is physical. A risk assessment should be undertaken. If sent home, the employee should still be paid unless there is a contractual provision suggesting otherwise.”
If a school is closed, can parents get time off to look after their children?
Demelza Wrigley, family law solicitor at Bell and Buxton Solicitors, said that in an emergency, such as a school closure when children need to be cared
for, “you are entitled to take parental leave”.
“You cannot be disciplined or sacked if you have no other option, but it is likely you will be unpaid, depending on the terms of your contract/employer’s policies,” she added. “Your employer can also ask you to take the time as annual leave or might offer you the opportunity to make up the time missed.”
What if your train is cancelled and you’ve pre-booked tickets, can you get a refund?
According to Emma Digby, commercial solicitor for Bell and Buxton Solicitors, National Rail’s terms and conditions mean you will get a refund if your train is cancelled. But different companies have different rates of compensation. “You must apply within 28 days generally with your ticket if you want a refund,” she added.
What if your flight is cancelled?
Digby said: “The first thing you need to do is check your airline’s T&Cs, but in short the airline has to give you a refund or an alternative flight. Beware: different rules apply for short, medium and long-haul flights - but if you’re flying back to the UK you’re covered under EU law. But this might well change with Brexit.
“Sadly, extreme weather is usually an ‘unforeseen circumstance’ so there is no
entitlement to compensation. Accommodation should be provided if the next
available flight is the following day – airlines usually have partner hotels they
use so don’t book a different hotel without checking with the airline as you might not be able to recover the cost.
“Remember: snacks, drinks and telephone calls are a minimum once the delay is over two hours.”
What legal advice is there around slipping on ice or snow if the areas surrounding the workplace aren’t cleared properly?
With the wintery weather showing no signs of stopping, the TUC has urged employers to make sure that entrances to workplaces are thoroughly gritted and not slippery. But what if that doesn’t happen?
Simon Bransby is a personal injury lawyer at Morgan Jones Pett Solicitors. He said employers have a duty to provide a safe working environment which extends to all areas of the workplace, including paths and car parks.
“Employers are obliged to properly risk assess the workplace and any additional risks posed during the winter months,” he explained. “They must ensure that hazards created by snow and ice are minimised, by clearing and/or gritting.
“If an employer fails to carry out a risk assessment and implement it, or fails to take steps to adequately clear snow and grit the workplace, they will be leaving their employees and visitors at risk of injury and therefore exposing themselves to a claim for compensation.”
He added that if you do slip and injure yourself, you should make sure that you detail what happened in the accident report book and make a note of any witnesses. All workplaces should have an accident report book, generally it will be with the office manager or HR department.
Bransby added: “If possible, take a photo of the area and seek medical attention, ensuring that the accident and the nature of your injuries is logged with your GP/Hospital.”