PRIORITIZING SAFETY AT YOUR HOLIDAY PARTY

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J.R. Moody
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As we approach the end of the year, we also approach the long-standing tradition of year-end holiday parties in the workplace. Throwing a party at the end of the year is beneficial as a celebration to reward workers for the contributions over the year. It’s a chance to relax, socialize with coworkers outside of the usual grind, and it helps to show appreciation and build morale. However, it’s important that when planning a holiday party, the excitement over its positive nature doesn’t get in the way of addressing the many safety and legal risks involved. This is especially true when alcohol is a factor.

Injuries, harassment, lapse in compliance, and alcohol-related incidents are all to common in far too many workplace holiday parties. Use thoughtful, careful planning to minimize the potential for these dangers ruining a good time.

Alcohol

The most tragic of potential party hazards are associated with alcohol consumption. If you’re planning on serving alcohol at your function, it’s crucial to prepare accordingly and be ready to neutralize unsavory situations before they manifest or become exacerbated. The worst-case scenario is, of course, an intoxicated individual injuring themselves or others, either at or after the party. Whether the incident occurs on site, at a third-party establishment, or while driving under the influence upon departure, your company can be held liable for damages all around. Medical insurance and workers’ compensation premiums can also take a heavy hit.

There are a handful of ways to monitor alcohol consumption at a party: Make sure attendance is voluntary, and consider using drink tickets or a “cash only”  bar– an open bar often promotes rapid consumption. Never serve alcohol without food. It’s best to serve food that’s heavy and starchy (make sure to clearly communicate food ingredients when allergens are involved). If there isn’t a scheduled sit-down mean planned, consider appetizers served throughout the duration of the party; the important thing is that no one drinks on an empty stomach. Hire competent, professional bartenders who know to recognize intoxication and stop serving individuals when necessary. Plan for a sober-up period at the end of the party. You can do this by scheduling events or lectures during the second half of the party, and closing the bar one to two hours before the end. Do not plan or encourage activities that involve or require alcohol for participation. And of course, be sure to provide non-alcoholic beverages.

Be sure that employees have adequate transportation home. No one should be permitted to leave intoxicated with the intention of operating a motor vehicle. Depending on the time and location of the party, a safe ride home may include public transportation, but check that the pedestrian route to the transit station is well-lit and safe in terms of criminal activity. Provide numbers for taxi cab services. Carpooling with a designated driver, ride sharing, and shuttle services are also appropriate methods of safe transportation. It’s also a good idea to offer employees “plus-one” invitations so they can bring a spouse, significant other, or friend, who may serve as a designated driver as well as be able to monitor the employee’s behavior during the party.

Harassment and Discrimination

The second-most common downfall at holiday parties is the stage for harassment and discrimination. Employers can easily be held legally liable for situations in which workplace anti-harassment laws have been violated, regardless of who makes the infraction (management, supervisors, or employees). The best way to combat this is by clearly communicating expectations beforehand. Employees should understand that all elements of the workplace anti-harassment policy apply at the party, without exceptions. This includes profanity and vulgar language, unwanted and unwelcome sexual advances and touching, and any behavior that could undermine the value of workplace diversity. Certainly avoid any decorations or activities which could promote poor behavior – mistletoe is a terrible idea.

Send out memos in advance reminding employees of these anti-harassment expectations, and consider including a copy of your policy. Discriminatory dialogue involving gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, or any other matter of diversity are entirely prohibited, and alcohol consumption is not an acceptable excuse for any related conduct. Holiday parties are meant to be fun for everyone, and harassment not only hurts your employees but puts your company at serious legal risks.

You can continue to minimize unwanted conduct by assigning members of management or other volunteers to act as “chaperones,” watching for inappropriate or unsafe behavior and intervening should it arise. Additionally, have a discussion with management prior to the party to let them know how their behavior at the party should set an example for everyone else. You may also consider extending invitations to spouses and significant others, as their presence may deter or discourage individuals from engaging in inappropriate conduct (as well as act as a designated driver in the event of overconsumption).

Take your holiday party theme deeply into consideration. Be sure not to use verbiage or décor which blatantly celebrates a particular religious holiday or its traditions or affiliations. Remember that you are hosting a wide variety of diverse employees, and you must avoid the ostracization that can occur by excluding groups of employees from a central theme.

Food

Where food is concerned, special precautions must be taken. Check with all other staff to determine whether anyone has any allergies or dietary restrictions. Then you can either omit certain ingredients (such as nuts) altogether, or make special arrangements to inform affected employees of the ingredients and place the dish away from other foods.

A serious hazard involved with food safety is foodborne illness, commonly associated with unsafe handling, undercooked meats, or cross contamination. Make sure that meats are cooked to a safe internal temperature, one high enough to kill harmful, illness-causing bacteria. Use safe cooking practices when preparing the food beforehand. Wash your hands regularly, and do not allow raw meat to come into contact with uncooked foods or preparation surfaces (the leading cause of cross contamination). Set out serving utensils next to prepared dishes and encourage coworkers to use them rather than their hands. In a buffet-style setting, you should use warming devices or ice to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.

Decorations

Make sure you choose decorations that are flame retardant or noncombustible. When possible, choose decorative greenery (flowers, trees, wreaths, etc.) that is artificial, as real plants are more susceptible to fire.

Placement of decorations is not only a fire issue, but a slip, trip, and fall issue as well. Make sure that lights or cords are not strung across walkways, and that they are plugged into outlets that can handle the amount of required voltage. Never overload electrical outlets. Ensure that larger decorative items such as statues or trees are not blocking entrances, exits, or emergency evacuation routes. It should go without saying that candles need to be avoided.

Check that any large items such as trees are properly anchored to the wall or ceiling prevent them from falling. Ornamental items should be hung high enough to prevent tripping and be made of shatter-resistant materials. Do not position decorations near heat sources, or use decorations that emit carbon monoxide in indoor, unventilated areas.

Make this year’s holiday party a happy and safe one!

 

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