With the festive season and Christmas rush approaching, the workplace can become stressful and prone to Work Health and Safety (WHS) risks. Christmas Parties going awry are not the only workplace legal risks employers need to be aware of during the festive period. SafeWork Australia statistics reported that the months of January, November and December in 2017 held a higher proportion of workplace related fatalities involving workers and bystanders. Over the last decade, the weeks leading up to Christmas have produced the most deaths, with November and December representing 25 percent of workplace fatalities.
Cutting corners and taking short cuts may be tempting as the pressure of deadlines loom and keeping up with demand increases leading up to Christmas. The risk of workplace injury increases as employees are forced to meet potentially unrealistic workloads, and rather than turning a blind eye, employers must prioritise safety and adherence to policies and procedures.
Workers in hospitality, transport, construction and retail industries often work long hours during the busy festive period and are more likely to experience fatigue and weariness. The impacts of high levels of mental or physical exhaustion can impair clear thinking which can have serious implications when it comes to following WHS protocols, day to day risk assessments, and carrying out day to day tasks.
The responsibility of managing the effects of fatigue should rest on both workers and their employers as contributing factors can derive from inside and outside work. However, fatigue has been identified as a workplace hazard by the Work Health and Safety Codes of Practice 2011 for the purposes of s 174 of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Cth)(WHS Act) and employers need to be able to identify potential hazards in their workplace due to environment or the nature of the work (i.e. shift work). Under the WHS Act, employers are responsible for protecting their workers from the adverse effects of fatigue.
Employers can do the following to mitigate these contributory factors to increased WHS risks around the festive period:
- Monitor break taking to ensure employees don’t skip breaks to cover increased demand;
- Avoid designating repetitive tasks for long periods at a time;
- Set realistic timeframes and workloads: factoring in extra time, additional staff or resources as required to ensure the job is completed safely;
- If work falls behind, implement an appropriate management plan that does not increase workload or stress levels of workers;
- Remind employees to take the time needed for an adequate risk assessment of a task before commencing work;
- Re-articulate drug and alcohol policies to staff;
- Avoid trading at extended hours where possible;
- Introduce stretching exercises;
- Remind workers of their legal duty of care to ensure their conduct at work is not harmful or placing others or themselves at risk, which involves making sure they are in a fit state to safely perform duties; and
- Avoid quick, lax onboarding of Christmas casuals.
Whilst the silly season can be a joyous time, it can also be a highly stressful period for many and can take a toll on mental health. Employers are urged to keep an eye on employee’s displaying signs or symptoms that could impair their ability to conduct work whilst minimising WHS risks.
During the holiday season many employers hire temporary staff or Christmas casuals to keep up with demand. Young workers and school leavers often join the workforce around this time and are more likely to take unnecessary risks in attempts to impress employers. Whilst this is a busy time for managers and supervisors, it is essential that training and induction is adequately provided, and that communication and appropriate support is prioritised. In doing so, safety policies and procedures must be easily accessible and made clear, especially to new workers.
The Christmas season coincides with the hottest time of the year, which for large parts of Australia means storm and bushfire season in addition to generally hotter working conditions for many industries.
For the construction industry and other workplaces involving physical labour, hotter climates can lead to increased susceptibility to heat stress and heat exhaustion which, in some cases, can lead to heat stroke. Warmer conditions can lead employees to experience (among other things): tiredness and weakness; confusion; disorientation; or inability to concentrate.
In some circumstances even a momentary lapse in concentration can result in a workplace accident or injury. In adhering to their duty of care, employers should take steps to deal with these conditions as they arise. Some tips and tricks include:
- Regulating exposure and reducing time working in hotter environments including outdoor provision of sunscreen and water;
- Reminding workers to stay hydrated and encouraging workers to communicate with supervisors if they are not coping; and
- Training workers on the impact of heat and the associated symptoms, to assist them with recognising if weather conditions are negatively affecting workers or their co-workers.
The cost of work-related injuries or fatalities far outweighs the time saved in compromising WHS policies and procedures to meet the demand of the Christmas time rush.
If you have any questions relating to mitigating increased health and safety risks as the festive season approaches or would like to discuss risks specific to your industry, please do not hesitate to contact Nick Stevens, Jane Murray or Angharad Owens-Strauss.