Michael Chissick writes on Y2K and employers' duty of care. Michael Chissick is head of the IT & online law group at Field Fisher Waterhouse.

It is unlikely that there will be any significant Y2K problems in the UK.

But the same cannot be said for many other countries. Widespread problems are expected in, for example, Russia and China.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 provides that employers must use reasonable skill and care to provide a proper system of work with well-maintained and proper plant, premises and machinery. The duty is limited to matters "in the course of employment" when employees are carrying out their duties, but can be extended by the employment contract.

Longworth v Coppas International (UK) Ltd (1985) established that an employer's duty may extend to the warning and evacuation of employees in a foreign country if war risks are likely. This duty depends on how imminent and serious the danger is.

It is certainly arguable that this duty extends to warning employees about the dangers of going to a country where Y2K problems are likely to be substantial and could put those employees in danger of physical harm, especially where those risks are well-publicised.

Employees in a country whose computers are known not to be Y2K compliant and where social unrest could result from this non-compliance could argue that their employers owe them a standard duty of care.

This duty would include making inquiries into the possible risks of Y2K non-compliance, advising em-ployees on the dangers involved and providing them with protective equipment. It may even extend to the duty to evacuate those employees, should conditions become sufficiently dangerous.

The case of Reid v Rush & Tompkins Group plc (1989) limited an employer's duty of care to well-being and not to compensating for pure economic loss. If employers do not offer suitable advice and precautions to employees, they may be in breach of their duty.

The threat posed by the millennium bug is real, although no one knows just how serious it will be. If the millennium bug does wreak havoc in countries like China and Russia, companies may well face litigation from their disgruntled employees.

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