Festive joy is melting away faster than a British white Christmas thanks to unsubstantiated claims around the do’s and don’ts of health and safety in the office. Louise Druce asks if we should say bah humbug to the celebrations.
Christmas used to be about festive celebrations and goodwill to all men (and women) but it seems to have increasingly become a time of dread for some companies, as they wrestle with the legal implications of holding office parties and even hanging up a few strands of tinsel.
Chartered Management Institute Christmas Outlook survey
Compounding the problem is the perpetuation of so-called rules surrounding what bosses can and can’t do. For example, the government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) dispels the myth that Christmas decorations have been banned for health and safety reasons or that they can only be put up by ‘qualified’ personnel. “Most organisations manage to put up decorations without a problem by providing staff with suitable step-ladders, rather than allowing them to balance on wheelie chairs,” says an HSE spokesperson.
“Managers just need to be sensible, recognise the potential risks and provide the right equipment for decorations to be put up safely.”
The president of Europe’s largest health and safety body, the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), has also slammed the media for blaming Scrooge-like attitudes towards the festive season on over-zealous health and safety officials.
“Health and safety is being blamed for banning Santa from riding his sleigh, requiring him to wear a seatbelt, and for banning Christmas lights,” says IOSH president Ray Hurst. “Let me just assure you that we don’t believe in banning Christmas. We want people to enjoy the festivities in a fun way, but in a safe way.
“It’s true to say there are occasions where health and safety has gone too far. And there are even more occasions where health and safety law is being misused to stop people doing things that are, for the most part, harmless,” he concedes. “Health and safety professionals are not interested in these things – we’d rather focus on preventing re-occurrence of serious incidents like Buncefield, Hatfield or Stockline.”
That’s not to say employers are immune from being responsible for accidents that do occur. According to employment law specialist Croner, Christmas-related falls from heights, slips and trips, electricity and fire resulting in injuries can lead to absence, compensation claims and property damage.
But before you decide it simply isn’t worth the risk, it adds that as long as a proper risk assessment is carried out looking at where and how decorations are sited, particularly if they could pose potential fire/electrical hazards, health and safety rules will not normally be breached.
Hurst agrees the key is to take a balanced and sensible view of health and safety risks, while taking steps to combat the most dangerous hazards. For instance, he recounts the story of a lady who was walking through St Neots in Cambridgeshire, when Christmas lights fell down on top of her, leaving her with a broken shoulder and other injuries. “She won’t appreciate the lack of safety measures,” he adds.
The biggest concerns, though, are when it comes to the office Christmas party. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers have a duty to ensure employees or the public are not harmed by any work activity organised or arranged by the company, even if the party is held out of hours or away from the company premises.
Unfortunately, this means that any injuries sustained from falling off tables used as an ad-hoc dance floor, or becoming embroiled in a fight with colleagues could lead to compensation claims, despite alcohol probably being more to blame.
“No one wants to play Scrooge at Christmas but companies could be setting themselves up for major problems if they don’t have specific health and safety measures in place for their party,” says Croner’s health and safety technical manager, Nasar Farooq.
“Simply trusting employees to behave safely and sensible is not enough. While trust and cooperation is an important part of having a successful party, if the worst were to happen, the employer would have no policy to fall back on to prove that adequate measures had been taken to prevent harm.”
He suggests the company should assess the health and safety risks of a party as it would any other business activity and set out guidelines ahead of the date. The key points for communication include making the event invitation only, stating the start and finish times, setting expectations around standards of behaviour and recommending safe drinking levels, reinforcing sexual harassment and discrimination policies, and reminding staff of the consequences of breaching company policy.
“Christmas can be a double-edged sword for most managers and how they handle the season’s multiple challenges can have a year-long impact,” says Phil Brown, managing director of Youmanage, which conducted a survey into office festivities. “Problems tend to occur when there is a lack of clarity and/or consistency. The key to minimising potential issues is to agree company-wide policies and guidelines, communicate them well in advance so there is no room for ambiguity, and then apply the policies consistently and impartially.”
You might also want to think twice about allowing free drinks on the company credit card. Out-law.com cites the case of three drunk, Whitbread employees who were fired after getting in a fight after a seminar, which was ironically on improving behavioural skills. They successfully argued the dismissals were unfair, a key factor being that the employer condoned their behaviour by providing a free bar.
Nasar Farooq, health and safety technical manager, Croner
Farooq recommends providing food where alcohol is served and to always provide the option of non-alcoholic drinks. He also says it is imperative not to serve employees who appear drunk or who are under 18, and to stick rigidly to the designated finish time.
These measures are not to ruin the festive spirit. In fact, Farooq adds that by sticking to basic health and safety rules, it means companies can have lots of fun and actually enjoy the social side of celebrating Christmas, which can also develop good working relationships between colleagues. And at least the morning after it won’t be the thought of legal action that is giving you a headache.