Staff Christmas parties

20 January 2003 by
Staff Christmas parties

The problem

The office Christmas party was organised for late afternoon and evening, in the company banqueting suite. All employees were invited. Drink and food were provided, but things got out of hand and three members of staff suffered severe injuries in accidents. The EHO was called for a noise nuisance and, next day, half the staff were sick with food poisoning.

The law

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 applies to employers, employees, self-employed persons and persons in control of premises. When anyone is on the premises of an employer, the employer has a duty to ensure their safety.

This duty applies not only to employees while they are at work, but also if they are undertaking any other activity, such as a social function. Civil laws in respect of an employer's "duty of care" also apply.

Food safety legislation applies to food displayed for sale, and "sale" does not always mean handing over money. Food must be "fit for consumption" and meet hygiene and safety standards.

Noise nuisance is dealt with under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, and statutory notices can be served on the company or a person to abate the noise nuisance. Failure to comply with the notice risks a fine of as much as £20,000.

Expert advice

An employer is "vicariously liable" for the actions of employees even when they are at a social event, especially if this is on company premises and during normal working time.

Employers need to ensure that sensible steps are taken to protect the health and safety of their employees.

If alcohol is available, the employer needs to assess the increased risks of hazards to individuals, which under normal circumstances would be acceptable. For example, employees may, under the influence of drink and peer pressure, be tempted to climb on to high ledges with unguarded drops, and so on. Some form of protection would be advisable.

While nobody wants to be a party pooper, senior management should be present at the function with a "watching brief" to stop any situation getting out of hand. Remove potential hazards - prevention is better than cure. Review fire safety procedures.

When preparing food for the buffet, make sure that all the requirements of the legislation are followed. Hygienic preparation is important. Purchasing food from reputable suppliers is essential. Temperature control is critical - keep food not above 63°C nor below 8°C.

If chilled display cabinets are not available, food can be displayed at ambient temperatures legally, for as long as four hours. There is a risk of food-poisoning bacteria multiplying to unacceptable levels during this period, so it is better to replenish food from chilled storage every two hours or so. Cook food thoroughly, chill rapidly and keep chilled.

Accidents and suspected food poisoning cases will be investigated by environmental health officers, and the investigation and inquiry will be just as thorough and robust as if the people affected were members of the public. You will need to be able to prove that, as an employer, you did everything "reasonably practicable" to protect employees from risks to their health and safety, and that you took "all due diligence" to prevent a contravention of food safety laws.

"Connivance" - turning a blind eye to safety issues at a staff Christmas party - can be a prosecutable offence under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

If disco music gets out of hand, it could cause a nuisance to residents in the area. Many local authorities have a night noise team and they investigate complaints.

Check list

  • Remove as many hazards from the workplace as possible.
  • Do not be blind to unsafe activities.
  • Do not encourage practical jokes.
  • Keep noise levels to acceptable levels.
  • Review emergency evacuation plans.
  • Increase fire safety awareness.
  • Prepare food in hygienic conditions.
  • Display food at room temperatures for a maximum of four hours, but preferably for two hours, and replenish frequently.
  • Do not use raw eggs or undercooked poultry.
  • Plan the staff Christmas party just as you would any other work activity.
  • To reduce risks even further, organise your Christmas party at a proper venue - such as a hotel, restaurant or club.

Contacts

Perry Scott Nash Group 01438 745771
E-mail: p.perry@perryscottnash.co.uk Web site: www.perryscottnash.co.uk

Health and Safety Executive
0541 545500

Beware

The compensation culture is growing and employees could sue employers for any accident, injury or ill-health suffered while "under your care". Harassment and bullying can also take place at social events and employment policies should address these situations. "Connivance", or turning a blind eye to safety, is a prosecutable offence.

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