Energy crisis and the working environment
In light of increasing energy prices, many states and undertakings are considering various austerity measures. One of the options being considered is lowering indoor air temperature in the autumn-winter period to 16-20 °C or lower compared to the current 23-25 °C and turning off heat sources outside of working hours.
In order to ensure a healthy indoor climate, it is important that the temperature, humidity and air velocity of the working environment are suitable for the performance of duties. When determining the appropriate indoor climate, the number of employees in the room, the mental and physical burden on the employees, the size of the workroom, the specifics of the work equipment used and the nature of the technological process should be taken into account. Therefore, indoor climate is not regulated by any legislation or requirements. The recommended values for the appropriate indoor climate are presented in the Estonian standard ‘Energy performance of buildings. Ventilation for buildings. Part 1: Indoor environmental input parameters for the design and assessment of energy performance of buildings addressing indoor air quality, thermal environment, lighting and acoustics.’
The recommended temperature ranges depending on the nature of work are listed below, but we understand that it may not be possible to follow these recommendations during the energy crisis and that other solutions may be needed:
- 20-25 °C for work that is performed sitting down and does not require physical exertion;
- 19-24 °C for work performed sitting down or standing, i.e. that involves walking and certain physical exertion;
- 17-23 °C for work involving walking, moving small items or objects (up to 1 kg) while standing or sitting and involves some physical exertion;
- 16-22 °C for work that is performed standing and involves walking and manual handling of smaller (up to 10 kg) loads which require moderate physical exertion;
- 15-20 °C for work involving continuous movement, moving and handling of heavy loads (over 10 kg) which require a great deal of physical exertion.
When making decisions about the indoor climate of workrooms and therefore the need to change the organisation of work, it is important to assess the risks of the working environment, take into account potential consequences and implement suitable and health-focused preventive measures resulting from cooperation between employers and employees.
As an employer, what do I have to consider in the event of a power outage? – Payment of wages
Recently, there has been increasing talk about potential power cuts. It is not possible to give an unequivocal and definite answer to what should be done in such a case and what works for every employment relationship. A lot depends on the circumstances of the power cut and the actions of both the employer and employee themselves. Among other things, a potential power cut may be the result of the Russian Federation deciding to disconnect itself from the electricity system of the Baltic states. This might bring up the question whether this constitutes force majeure and whether as a result, it is possible for the employer to implement § 103 of the Law of Obligations Act, which states that non-performance of an obligation is excusable if the obligation was breached due to force majeure. Another potential question is whether the employer is required to pay wages upon failure to provide work (§ 35 of the Employment Contracts Act).
An employment relationship is by nature a relationship under the Law of Obligations Act. The employer is obliged to provide the employee with the opportunity to work and to pay wages, and the employee is obliged to work at the time, place and in the manner agreed. Therefore, in addition to the provisions of the Employment Contracts Act, employment relationships are subject to the general principles of the Law of Obligations Act, i.e. the definition of force majeure provided by law and the excusability of the breach arising from it.
In accordance with § 103 of the Law of Obligations Act, non-performance by an obligor (employer) is excused if it is caused by force majeure. Force majeure means circumstances which are beyond the control of the employer and which, at the time the contract was entered into or the noncontractual obligation arose, the employer could not reasonably have been expected to take into account, avoid or overcome the impediment or its consequence.
The Supreme Court has also deemed that in the case of a financial obligation, a breach is usually not excusable (RKTKo 3-2-1-50-06, cl. 15). The annotated edition of the Law of Obligations Act contains a position that, in principle, breaching a financial obligation could be excusable, for example, in the event of war or the government prohibiting international payments or foreign currency payments. However, this only eliminates the claim of default interest and the employer is still required to pay wages.
If the employee expresses their will and readiness to work, the employer must still pay average wages upon failure to provide work. For example, if the employee comes to work on Monday morning and receives a message from their employer that there is no electricity. It is not possible to provide other work and the employee is sent back home. In this situation, the employer found no other options to ensure the opportunity to work, i.e. to earn wages through the performance of duties, but the employer must still pay the employee average wages.
Therefore, in the case of the obligation to pay wages, non-performance is excused under § 103 of the Law of Obligations Act only in very exceptional cases. For example, if the payment of wages is prevented by a nationwide power cut or large-scale failure of banking systems, i.e. in a situation where the employer is unable to make the payment or even take out cash. In such a situation, the employer must still pay the wages later and cannot refuse to perform this obligation. Force majeure can only cause a delay in the performance of this obligation. However, in such a situation, the employee cannot request default interest or compensation for damages (unless agreed otherwise in the employment contract).
Working in a cool or cold environment
What happens to people working in a cool or cold workroom?
- Working in a cold environment (e.g. in winter, cold storage, unheated spaces) causes cutaneous blood vessels to constrict in order to maintain a normal temperature in the body and vital organs.
- Cold temperatures also increase water loss through the kidneys (frequent urination), which means that the body loses water due to the cold.
- Working in the cold causes increased muscle tone – muscles become stiff. Shivering leads to the body producing more heat than usual.
- Contact with cold surfaces (e.g. the steering wheel of a tractor, levers) contributes to cold injuries.
- Poor nutrition, low body weight (malnourishment), smoking and alcohol consumption also contribute to the effects of cold.
- High humidity, wind (draught) and insufficient clothing increase the risk of a common cold.
Based on the above, here are some recommendations to maintain capacity for work and avoid falling ill.
- Employers should review the organisation of working and rest time and, if necessary, change it.
- Think through the layout of workrooms and the organisation of work, including whether it would make sense and be possible to assign people to the same workroom. However, such a solution should be discussed with employees to avoid additional tension. Before rearranging people, make sure that it complies with the requirements of coronavirus prevention (kriis.ee: current restrictions) and take a look at your company’s risk assessment.
- For office work, make use of teleworking and give your employees the chance to work from a warmer home office. However, keep in mind that teleworking is only possible by mutual agreement – employers may not force employees to telework in order to save on heating costs.
- As an employee, wear clothing that suits the temperature of the room. Preferably layered clothing, which helps to retain body heat better and allows you to remove or add layers if the temperature changes. You should also wear warmer footwear or thermal socks.
Changes in clothing may require employers to review the organisation’s dress code and amend the established requirements either temporarily or permanently. If employers wish to maintain the team spirit and uniform appearance of their employees, they have to be prepared for the additional costs of purchasing suitable working clothing.
Employers should go over the clothing of employees who wear working clothing to see whether they are suitable for work in lower temperatures or whether they need to purchase thermal underwear, warm socks, fleeces or other warm clothing items.
- Employees should take more breaks to move around, warm themselves and stretch.
- Drink water or tea to restore the fluid lost due to the cool or cold workspace. Note that working days should not be extended and the wages of employees may not be reduced due to additional breaks.
Employees who work in cold temperatures must have the opportunity to take their breaks in a warm room. It is recommended to extend breaks to at least 30 minutes in order to allow the body to warm up.
Additional or extended breaks are a part of the working and rest time organisation established by employers, which, depending on the situation, may also require changing. It is important for employers and employees to cooperate and find mutual solutions, as well as explaining which breaks and rest periods are included in the working time and which are not (e.g. a 30-60 minute lunch break does not usually count towards working time).
- If your muscles are already stiff due to working in a cool room, it is important to move around and stretch as soon as possible (without waiting for the official break time). See the Labour Inspectorate’s exercises for breaks.
It is important to encourage, teach and motivate people to do exercises. There should be an appointed motivator (e.g. the working environment specialist or working environment representative) in the team to occasionally remind people of the importance of stretching.
- Good nutrition plays an important part in feeling well and staying healthy. Recommendations for a complete and healthy diet are available on the website of the National Institute for Health Development.
As strength lies in unity, we need to work together to solve this crisis and take into account the interests of both sides.
- Employee – understand that the temperature in your workplace will be lower this year than before and do your best to alleviate the situation (such as wearing warmer clothing). Propose ways to save on energy costs.
- Employer – understand that there are limits to restricting heating. Do not put your employees in a situation where they are unable to be productive because they are too cold. Listen to the suggestions of your employees to mitigate the situation.
Work together to find the boundaries acceptable to both parties.
Energy crisis and employment relations
The increase in prices and the general cost of living is inevitably accompanied by changes in the labour market – every employer may no longer be able to continue operating in the same volume or at all. Such decisions lead to temporary or permanent employment-related changes, including workload reductions or redundancies.
Even in a crisis situation, the best decisions are reached through cooperation between employers and employees, i.e. through inclusion and open discussions. It is always in the interest of both parties that the company continues its operations, with the issue being under which conditions is this feasible.
If the economic situation of an employer takes an unexpected turn and the company needs to be rescued or a decision is made to even partially cease operations, the law prescribes the following options:
- Negotiate with employees and amend the terms of their employment contract temporarily or permanently pursuant to section 12 of the Employment Contracts Act (ECA). For example, it is possible by mutual agreement to make changes in their workload, and implement summarised working time for a more flexible planning of work or teleworking.
See also: Amendment of employment contract
- See whether rearranging holidays would help and, if necessary, negotiate changes in the holiday schedule. Other options, such as holiday without pay, are also available by mutual agreement.
See also: Use of holiday
- Start informing and consulting employees in order to implement the possibilities provided in section 37 of the ECA for the reduction of workload and wages by a unilateral decision of the employer for up to three months within a 12-month period.
See also: Reduction of wages
- Where necessary, plan and consult employees to get their opinions on the launch of redundancies, including collective redundancy (with the Unemployment Insurance Fund).
See also: Unilateral cancellation of employment contract
It is important to maintain your health and occupational safety even in difficult situations. Let us be considerate and support each other to overcome this uncertain period.
Questions and answers
We understand that with increased electricity bills comes a need for saving. However, the need to save electricity cannot increase the hazards in the working environment, including the hazard of tripping and falling because it is dark. This means that workplaces need to be adequately lit during the time when employees have to perform their duties.
It is up to the employer to decide how to divide workrooms, but when changing rooms, the suitability of the other room for the work and the wishes of the employees must be reasonably taken into account. If you feel that the planned change is not suitable for you, let your employer know first. It is then possible to work together to find a solution that works for both parties, for example by installing noise-dampening partitions or agreeing on rules for working in an open office. For example, it is agreed that no phone calls will be made and that meetings will not be held in an open office but out of earshot.
Employers have an obligation to provide employees with work clothes if the work involves dust and dirt, the use of hazardous chemicals, or if the work is performed in cool conditions such as cold storage or outdoors. This means that if the work is performed in cool or cold conditions, the employer must provide employees with work clothes. However, if the temperature in the office is turned down a few degrees (for example from 23 to 20 degrees), then the employer is not obliged to provide work clothes.
The energy crisis has not changed the principles of remote work - remote work can only be performed by mutual agreement of the parties. Neither party can demand this. If the employer wants employees to perform work duties remotely due to saving energy costs, a solution should be found that suits both parties. This means that the employer should consider for what and to what extent they are willing to reimburse for employees before offering remote work.
For sedentary work that does not require physical effort, including office work, the minimum recommended temperature is around 20 degrees. This means that if the office temperature is lowered to 19 or 20 degrees, the temperature is still within the recommended range. In this case, employees who feel chilly can wear warmer clothes at work. You can also discuss with your employer whether they would be willing to provide employees with throw blankets for the office.
An employee can claim compensation from the employer for sickness if the employee has been diagnosed with an occupational disease by an occupational health doctor. An occupational disease is diagnosed by an occupational health doctor after having examined, among other things, the employee's work and working environment and is convinced that the disease has been caused by work. In the case of a common cold, however, it is impossible to establish unequivocally the circumstances under which a person became sick, and therefore in the vast majority of cases diagnosing of an occupational disease is not possible.