Workplace Xmas Parties: A Health and Safety Risk?

Tania Waikato

Senior Solicitor

Senior Solicitor

Phone: +64 7 927 0543
Email: twaikato@clmlaw.co.nz

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Bachelor of Arts,  Bachelor of Laws (Hons), University of Waikato

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‘Tis the season to be jolly, but how jolly is too jolly? A few drinks and some good food to unwind and celebrate another year at the work Xmas party is a tradition for many Kiwi businesses. But with more proactive obligations on employers to manage risks under the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSW Act), is the end of year shindig becoming a thing of the past?

Horror stories about staff becoming too intoxicated at workplace Xmas functions leading to abusive language, inappropriate behaviour, unwanted sexual advances, assaults and drink driving are enough to make employers want to pull their Santa hats down over their faces and pull the plug on Xmas festivities altogether. But with good planning, good practices and good advice, there’s no reason your business cannot continue to enjoy some Xmas cheer without a health and safety hangover in the New Year.

The law requires employers to ensure the health and safety of persons in their workplace so far as reasonably practicable. An intoxicated staff member can pose a serious risk to the health and safety of themselves, and other staff members, due to their impaired judgment and reduced inhibitions. Employers therefore, have a responsibility to prevent and manage this risk at workplace Xmas functions as far as reasonably practicable.

Here are our top 5 tips for managing H&S risks at workplace Xmas parties

  1. Remind staff of appropriate standards of conduct: A light-hearted reminder prior to the function of what is appropriate behaviour and what is not will set the right tone for the party. Remind people that nobody likes to be sworn at, groped, assaulted or subjected to discrimination, and that drinking responsibly will reduce the risk of this type of behaviour. Using health and safety slogans like “look after your mates” is a good way to get the message across.
     
  2. If you are serving free alcohol, ensure there are limits in place: Organising staff beer pong matches or boat races between management and employees is probably not a good idea if you want your employees to drink responsibly. You should ensure that alcohol is served by appropriately trained bar staff (rather than just a free for all) and that they keep an eye on consumption levels and refuse to serve anyone that appears to be intoxicated. Some workplaces may choose to impose a drink limit if they know their employees tend to overindulge. Having at least one member of management remain sober to keep an eye on things is also a good idea.
     
  3. Serve plenty of food, non-alcoholic drinks and organise activities: Make sure there are lots of things to do other than just drink for 3-4 hours. Have a good meal planned and food available throughout. Make sure that anyone who does not want to drink alcohol has a good selection of non-alcoholic drinks available and have 1-2 activities scheduled so drinking alcohol is not the sole focus of the event.
     
  4. Have sober supervisors to act as safety buddies: Not everyone wants to drink at the Xmas party so ask for sober volunteers who don’t mind acting as a “safety buddy” for anyone who needs help during the party. It could be to call someone a taxi if they have too much to drink, or to alert them to someone behaving inappropriately. Give the volunteers a briefing on what to do and who to see if something comes up. Advise staff who the safety buddies are during your pre-party briefing and make sure they have the full support of management if things go wrong.
     
  5. Have a safe transport plan: If you are serving alcohol, you should take responsibility for ensuring all your staff get home safely. Providing free taxis, a bus service or sober drivers in a car pool are all good ways to ensure drink driving is avoided.
     
  6. With some planning and common sense, there is no reason why the end of year Xmas party has to become a health and safety nightmare. Employers should support their employees by providing a healthy and happy environment where everyone can enjoy themselves and celebrate responsibly.

If you would like some assistance with implementing health and safety policies covering workplace functions, or advice on disciplinary action arising from one, please contact us – we are happy to help. Have a safe and merry holiday season!