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Taking a snow day

Is there an obligation to protect employees from dangerous commuting in severe weather?

By Jeffrey R. Smith (jeffrey.r.smith@thomsonreuters.com)

Over the course of the long winter, Canadians get their fair share of big storms with bad conditions for travelling. When the weather forecasters warn of a big winter storm with snow, freezing rain and other various forms of punishment, it’s common for workers to wonder if they’ll get a “snow day” — if the weather’s that bad, then perhaps organizations will be forced to shut down operations for the day.

The decision to close and tell employees to stay home in inclement weather rests with the employer, which has to weigh the disadvantages of losing a day’s work against forcing workers to trudge through a long, slow commute in slippery conditions.

But how far does this responsibility go, both morally and legally?

A winter storm can create conditions that are very dangerous to drive in — slippery roads, poor visibility, cold weather — as well as many potential delays. If these conditions are really bad, should the employer be obliged to close its office and keep its employees safe at home?

Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from harm in the workplace and this includes work-related functions outside the normal workplace. Could this duty extend to the commute in dangerous conditions? Would there (or should there) be liability if the employer stayed open in severe conditions and an employee who couldn’t afford to take the day off was hurt or killed in an accident caused by the conditions? What if police and weather forecasters had warned people to stay home unless absolutely necessary, as sometimes happens?

On one hand, severe weather is a fact of life in winter in Canada and one could argue we just have to adapt and get on with things. But, on the other hand, one could say that fact of life should mean we have to accept some days will not be good for travelling and employers should plan for a few days every winter to have the office closed when a severe storm sweeps in.

In the end, that could end up saving frustration, employee disenchantment and maybe even lives.

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. For more information, visit www.employmentlawtoday.com.

Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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