Tis the season to be jolly, and perhaps, as always, the season to be jolly careful too? The holiday season brings joy, but amidst the festivities, safety remains paramount. This guide outlines crucial considerations for a safe and enjoyable Christmas in the workplace, including employer responsibilities and relevant case law on vicarious liability.
Christmas Workplace Safety Priority 1: tree location
1) Prioritise safety over aesthetics
The approach of the festive period often means rummaging around that store cupboard and unearthing the fabled office Christmas tree (hopefully not hiding in the cupboard marked fire door—keep closed). You know the one where you’re not supposed to store things, especially next to or right on top of the electrical distribution board. But I digress.
2) Avoid fire exits and high-traffic areas
It’s time to put up and show off your resplendent Balsam Fir, but first things first, like all good real estate decisions: location, location, location. You need to be careful that the Christmas tree is positioned such that it doesn’t create access and egress issues. We don’t want the tree to be encroaching upon (or even worse, totally blocking) fire exit routes.
Think about avoiding high-traffic or high-footfall routes as well. Find that sweet spot within the office where your tree is commandingly visible without creating any undesirable trip or fall hazards.
Make sure your Christmas tree is well secured with a stable and appropriately sized stand; we don’t want it to break loose and karate chop innocent passersby.
3) Beware of fire hazards
Consider all items within the office that might be in the near vicinity and potentially be incompatible with your Christmas tree.
Don’t put your Norwegian Spruce (either the real wood version or that replica 100% polyester one you bought from Woolworths in about 1979) too close to sources of heat or potential sources of ignition. Be careful that particularly tall trees aren’t likely to contact light fittings or any other ceiling or wall-mounted sources of heat or electrical equipment.
Keep natural trees hydrated; as they dry out, their combustibility inevitably rises.
Decorating the tree with Christmas Workplace safety in mind
When it comes to decorating your tree, once again, there are several sensible precautions that should be taken. Remember, as far as H&S law is concerned, decorating your workplace Christmas tree is, to all intents and purposes, a work-based activity; hence, it should be planned and carried out safely.
1) Working at heights
Doubtless, you want copious amounts of delightful decorations cunningly positioned all over your office pride and joy for maximum visual effect. If your tree is of sufficient size that adorning it with baubles cannot be fully undertaken from ground level, please avoid the temptation to grab the nearest office wheely chair and clamber aboard.
Try to stay off the desks too. If you need to ‘work at height’ get the appropriate kick step or small office stepladders that you have on-site and ‘work’ from that more stable platform.
2) Inspecting old or damaged Christmas lights
It is entirely likely that your Christmas lights will also have been hidden away in storage for upward of 12 months. Your Christmas lights are items of electrical equipment; the electrical flex or individual bulbs may have deteriorated over time.
If your lights have been stored in that out-of-the-way store cupboard where everything that you don’t want on display in the office gets stuffed, the lights may have been damaged.
3) Portable Appliance Testing (PAT)
Whilst most portable electrical appliances that are used on site should be included in some kind of formal inspection regime (Portable Appliance Testing, PAT being the most commonly used type), even the Health and Safety Executive has previously indicated that PA testing is unlikely to be needed (in most general office situations—outdoor lights or those situated in more arduous environmental conditions—well, that might be a different story).
A simple visual inspection should provide a good enough indication as to the condition of your Christmas lights and whether they are fit to continue to be used.
Inspect and replace any broken bulbs: If you need to use extension cords, make sure they’re positioned carefully; we don’t want them tripping anyone up as well as potentially dragging the whole Christmas tree over. Don’t overload sockets and extension cords. Don’t use lights that are rated for outdoor use internally, as they typically operate at higher temperatures and could be an ignition source. Similarly, don’t be tempted to hang ‘internal lights’ in any external setting; they are unlikely to be as robust in terms of construction to function safely in those more rigorous external settings.
4) Consider low-voltage LED lights.
Older mains voltage lights can be dangerous should they become damaged, increasing the potential for electrocution as well as causing other bulbs within the same wiring loop to operate at higher temperatures. Where practicable, try to use low-voltage LED lights instead.
These kinds of bulbs operate at a lower voltage, remaining cool to the touch while being energised. These bulbs do not have any filaments, so they are far more durable and less likely to break. The only potential downside of LED lights is that the transformer that will also be part of the unit can get quite warm while in use. It is therefore important to ensure that sufficient air can circulate around it.
Read our H&S How-to Guide to Portable Appliance Testing (PAT).
💡TIP: Christmas Lights Shutdown: Don’t forget to turn all Christmas lights off before leaving work at the end of the day; you could even put them on a timer to ensure that this is done on a daily basis.
The Christmas period does introduce some seasonal hazards into the workplace that we don’t typically have to think about at other points in the calendar, but with some simple practical guidance, you should be able to enjoy the visual treat that is your fully illuminated Christmas tree and stay suitably safe at the same time.
Christmas Events: The Legal Side!
Christmas events are likely to be an integral part of the festive landscape for many businesses, but appropriate care and attention when arranging and enjoying these events should always be considered.
1) Workplace Responsibilities
While at most Christmas Party events, the employee will still be considered to be at work (case law even extends that duty to after-hours events). The party effectively functions as an extension of the workplace, and all the usual employer-employee responsibilities and duties of care still exist.
Should an employee be injured at the venue (whether on-site within the workplace or at a third-party location) and they were not to blame for the injury, there could be a potential claim against the employer.
Case Law: vicariously liable!
Prior case law has also ruled that where events continue into the night, the employer, in this instance, pays for taxes to leave the original venue and head on to a further venue later that evening (also primarily funded by the employer).
- When a physical altercation broke out, leading to a senior manager punching and seriously injuring an employee (leaving him with brain damage), a High Court ruling originally stated that this was a separate event and a dispute between two people for which the company could not be held vicariously liable (1).
- The Court of Appeals overturned that decision. It was determined that the argument was in fact work-related and that the senior manager was still acting within the capacity of that role and the authority that it conveyed upon him, essentially asserting his authority over subordinate employees.
- The evening gathering followed directly from the earlier work event and was not an isolated, impromptu social interaction between colleagues. The company was therefore held vicariously liable for the injury.
Vicarious liability: (1) An employer is vicariously liable for a tort (civil liability) committed by its employee if the employee is acting in the course or scope of their employment.
2) Set clear boundaries
It is important that organisations clearly state the ‘boundaries’ of any work event, reiterating that the Christmas party is still technically a work-related activity and all behaviour at the party will continue to be covered by all facets of the company’s disciplinary procedures.
It is preferable for an organisation to distance itself from unofficial after-parties and make it abundantly clear that if employees do move on to other venues or continue after the official event ends, this is not endorsed by the employer.
3) Alcohol Considerations
Any employee must not attempt to drive home if they are over the legal alcohol limit (or likely to be over that limit). With any organised event, consider having arrangements in place with a local taxi firm, including provision of their contact details, time or duration of availability, and cost-sharing mechanisms if this has been previously agreed.
Although employees are typically more than aware of the risks and implications associated with working under the influence of alcohol, unfortunately, many people do not allow sufficient time for alcohol to pass through their bodies after an evening of consuming alcohol. Employers have a general duty to ensure, as far as is reasonably practical, the health, safety, and welfare of employees. If an employer knowingly allows a member of staff who is under the influence to continue working, there could be significant consequences.
4) Screening and testing
Some organisations have adopted alcohol screening and testing for employees (both voluntary and compulsory) in certain industries (e.g., use of heavy industrial machinery). While the morning commute is largely outside the scope of ‘at work’ activities, many employers are actively engaging with employees to help mitigate these kinds of situations.
Consultation and communication can help employees recognise the dangers of alcohol, drug, and other substance misuse and encourage them to seek help.
As you embrace the festive season, let these practical guidelines be your safety net. Enjoy the holiday cheer responsibly, remembering that while it’s the season to be jolly, it’s equally crucial to remain vigilant and prioritise health and safety in the workplace.
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