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Employee away days: Where does the duty of care lie?
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Employee away days: Where does the duty of care lie?

25 people were treated for burns in June after they walked across hot coals as part of a corporate away day in Switzerland. Outside of the office, does an employer have a duty of care for employees voluntarily taking part in an external activity? SHP (Safety & Health Practitioner) investigates

Team-building excursions allow people with different skills and strengths to work together in an ‘enjoyable’ way, to increase inclusion and solidify morale in an office. However, health and safety still needs to be considered on these trips, especially with uncertainty about where the duty of care lies.

Although the case in Switzerland would be one for Austrian law to determine, UK case law on this question is itself limited, perhaps because cases can be settled outside of court.

Nonetheless, there are two main areas that are queried – the first is whether a person attending a corporate away day outside the office is technically at work, in which case the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974 would apply. This would mean the employer has general health and safety duties towards their employees, according to HSE.

On the other hand, if employees are deemed to be off work, what responsibility does the employer have in ensuring an activity is safe and the participants are capable of taking part? If it’s an event that the company organises on its own, the employer is responsible for the safety of their employees as they are managing the event, yet an event managed by an external company could be argued to alter this outlook.

However, Director at Turnstone Law Simon Joyston-Bechal, a lawyer specialising in health and safety, mentions that “this sort of event is normally done at the expense of the employer, and it is usually part of work. That contrasts with a group of employees deciding amongst themselves to do an activity out of working hours at their own expense without any line management pressure on employees to attend.

“When a UK employer arranges any work-related team building events, then its duties in health and safety criminal law are fully engaged, including the duty to provide safe work activities. This means the employer should risk assess and plan with the event organiser and conduct due diligence regarding that contractor’s competence, safety record and insurance provisions.”

For the 25 team members, walking barefoot across a bed of hot coals, often known as fire-walking, can be used as part of motivational courses and charity events. The group reportedly walked over a bed of coals that was several metres long but felt pain shortly after.

Simon adds: “The employer must do everything that is reasonably practicable. In my view that will depend on all the circumstances […] But certainly considerable checks should be made when hazardous activities are being planned, such as walking on hot coals.”

It is still unclear if there was an issue with the set-up of the coals or with how the group walked across them, however, an emergency response of 10 ambulances arrived at the scene, as reported by the BBC, with 13 people taken to hospital and treated for more severe injuries after the incident.

According to the BBC, officials have opened an investigation and taken evidence from the fire-walking site, which is based in the Au peninsular just south of the city of Zurich.

Also see Avoiding Injuries on Team Building Days: A Guide for HR Professionals

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