25,584 people attended Emergency Departments in the week of December 18th to December 24th in 2019. The reason we have gone back to 2019 is because it was BC (as in “Before Covid”, not “Before Christ”)!! 2019 allows us to ensure the integrity of this blog and advice is not skewed by Covid figures in subsequent years. Of the 25,584 people that attended, 6,810 people were then subsequently admitted to hospital. Extrapolated out, circa 100,000 people attend the Emergency Department in Ireland in the month of December. That’s an awful lot of ruined Christmases for an awful lot of people.
Of course very little data is available to tell us how many of these 25,584 cases were as a result of work related incidents, but you can bet your bottom euro that there was quite a number. We here at dulann thought we could help spread a little festive cheer by highlighting some of the unique hazards that happen around Christmas in the workplace. We do this in the hope that it would help someone avoid becoming part of that unfortunate statistic in 2022. Damian Donlon (CEO dulann) and Alan Connolly (Director dulann West & Rubikon Consultants) will be highlighting "The 12 Dangers of Christmas" in the workplace.
1) Employee Wellbeing
It’s the end of another long year and some employees are already starting to feel the burnout. Daylight hours are at a minimum, and the weather is often poor, so the mood is also typically lower at this time of year as employees struggle to get any outdoor physical exercise, which of course helps with mental well-being. Many employees experience money worries as people shop till they drop, very often not being able to afford their spending. We are in a cost of living crisis, including mortgage interest hikes and fuel price surges that just compounds matters even further for some people. Relationships can often be difficult for some at this time of year. So for 2022, let's heap on some additional pressures from working from home, working in a hybrid model etc. With the above in mind, you need to be extra aware of the fact that employee wellbeing initiatives around Christmas 2022 have probably never been as important. In our opinion, there is a wave of absenteeism about to happen that will significantly impact productivity and efficiency. Now is the time to act as it’s never too late.
2) Slips, Trips & Falls
Listen, it just had to be well up there didn’t it! Christmas exacerbates the problem for a number of reasons, and when it comes to slips and trips it’s always the simple and silly things to be aware of. Firstly, mean temperatures sit at 5.6 degrees, with quite a number of nights expected to drop below freezing. Perversely, Ireland also typically has an average of 114 mm of rainfall in December. This is bloody awful in itself, but you mix high rainfall and frost and that makes for slippery surfaces. Areas such as pathways in particular become a Health & Safety Managers nightmare.
Let’s not get too trivial but this time of year also sees more boxes of decorations being stored in inappropriate areas and more cables being run than at Grand Central Station. Christmas is just an increased hazard for slips and trips so be extra cautious as you could be seen as the Grinch that spoiled Christmas. Let’s not talk about employees falling off chairs whilst putting up decorations because I’m sure no one allows that these days!! It’s been a while since we saw an SOP on it, anyway!
3) Seasonality Workload
So, when it comes to the number of man hours worked in December, there are a number of factors to consider, including the fact that you are trying to do your normal monthly output and productivity in less days due to holidays. If your business is seasonal in nature, it could be exacerbated by the fact that you may see a significant increase in activity on the shop floor. So essentially, you are trying to do far more work, in less days!! Typically this is a health and safety nightmare, and if you must bring in temporary staff to deal with output pressures, then the whole complexity just gets amplified. Trying to get temporary staff upskilled often falls by the wayside or is rushed. A well thought out plan and risk assessment that is communicated well in advance is vital to keeping those incident rates low.
Adverse weather conditions don’t just affect your employees that are on foot. Such adverse conditions such as low temperatures, high rainfall and poor visibility also make driving conditions to/from work much more dangerous for employees. Some say that driving to and from work is not the companies problem, but certainly parking, entering/exiting company facilities etc are definitely something that the company needs to concern themselves with. The problem may be exacerbated in situations where there is limited parking, as there may be illegal parking taking place, where there is greater chance of a prang. If there are large volumes of vehicles entering or exiting a premises at the same time, with frosted or misted windows, then you could be a very busy Health & Safety Manager if situations like reverse parking, adequate lighting etc isn’t dealt with. If you are responsible for a fleet of employees that have to drive as part of their living, then these months are the ones that need particular attention. Traditionally the most dangerous months of the year from a fatality perspective are from October to December. It’s a time of year with high volumes of traffic on the road, particularly from Christmas shoppers who are distracted. Christmas needs particular attention.
5) Cold Workplaces
There is a statutory requirement for office workplace settings to be no lower than 17.5 degrees celsius from 1 hour after commencement of work - with HSE Sustainability Office indicating the temperature of 18 – 23 degrees is the comfortable range. Ireland has an average temperature of 5/6 degrees in December so be warned. While hypothermia, frostbite and chilblain are extremes, they are very applicable in certain sectors, you don’t have to go to those extremes to be at increased risk at this time of the year. Leaving aside the extremes, colder temperatures are just not desirable for anyone. Working at heights becomes a whole different ball game around this time of the year, but you don’t have to leave ground zero to be at risk. Colder conditions can cause employees to have an inferior grip on tools regardless of height. If employees use power tools, cold conditions pose additional risks and increase probability in your risk assessments. But as some people don’t work at heights or use power tools, even manual handling activity changes likelihood and severity as the weather conditions change.
6) Increased Alcohol Consumption
Certainly less of a problem in recent years as alcohol consumption is decreasing in Ireland, but there is still increased risk over the Christmas period as all those Christmas parties kick off. Alcohol reduces someone’s risk awareness and inhibitions, even if it is the morning after. Being hungover in a physical job can become difficult at best for the employee, but depending on the work activity can very quickly become fatally dangerous. Would you like to be on a site where the crane driver is hungover? What about in a factory that has overloaded racking at Christmas, being stacked by a hungover fork truck operator? There has to be zero tolerance for all employees on this. It may seem like fun if you are younger and at a desk job, but as Health & Safety Manager you must be fair to all employees, and besides you have a duty of care to your colleagues. If something like this occurs in your workplace, it’s time to spoil that party unfortunately. Better safe than sorry!
7) Seasonal Illness
“Illness” is a big word, but really we are referring to any illness including flus, colds, and the sniffles. Most employees soldier on through most of this, but as Health & Safety Manager you need to be aware that the spread of even the most minor of sniffles can potentially impinge productivity, efficiency and absenteeism. Not that absenteeism is the top priority for many EHS Managers, but you will be looked at to provide proactive advice, training and support on infection control. No other department is going to do it. If we have learnt nothing from Covid, it’s that infection control lies firmly in the hands of the EHS Department.
8) Increased Musculoskeletal Injuries
No self-respecting “12 dangers of Christmas” blog could be complete without dealing with increased musculoskeletal injuries at Christmas. This is as a result of many many factors, some of which are partially dealt with above. It is such an important topic though that it is worth listing some new ones, as well as reiterating what we discussed earlier:
9) Festive Flames and Fire Safety
There is a significant increase in fires over the Christmas period. Of course, most people’s first reaction is to think of the significant increase in unapproved fairy lights, and overloaded sockets being plugged in for long periods of time. This is true of course, but there are also a number of additional things to consider as Health & Safety Manager. Additional stock levels, and in particular an increase in packaging being stored can lead to a significant fire hazard. Temporary staff may not be aware of fire procedures and evacuation drills, and as mentioned earlier, there may be an increased risk of access and egress being blocked by all types of obstacles (stock, decoration boxes or otherwise). And also, if applicable in your industry, cooking and extraction systems become overloaded during a busy Christmas so therefore the risk of fire is greater if not maintained and cleaned properly. I know it sounds simple to just put up a Christmas tree, but if it is a natural one it needs to be treated with fire retardant and placed in an area that is likely to cause no damage whatsoever in the event of a doomsday scenario. I certainly wouldn’t be placing it near a storage heater and lighting it up like a northern star. With the increased fire risk, greater attention needs to be put on ensuring that all your fire prevention and fire fighting equipment is ready to go if needed.
10) Business Crime
It’s not very nice but some people take advantage of Christmas in order to steal things. In fact there is always a significant increase in opportunistic thefts & nuisance break-ins at this time of year. What has that got to do with Health & Safety I hear you ask… Well firstly, you need to understand the reasons for such an increase and some of the reasons include increased Alcohol & Drug Consumption, Stress or Financial Pressure. This means that there are people often not familiar with your premises, wandering around unaccompanied, and often at times where there is little supervision. Now we have a health and safety issue! We particularly have a health and safety issue if equipment is damaged or stolen, that may have an impact on employees. There are lots of organisations that provide crime prevention advice, and we are not one of them, but be aware that Christmas does pose additional health and safety and security risks for our clients.
11) Data Breaches. Criminals Don’t Break for Christmas!
According to Symantec, a global network security company, the most common time for business data breaches is during the busy holiday period; from October through to December.
You lock the door of your premises at Christmas time, so don’t leave the data door open for cyber criminals. Initially most people would park this danger with the IT Department, and certainly the H&S team needs to work in conjunction with the IT Team, but this is a cross functional issue and criminals don’t discriminate.
Certainly, there is a chance that personal data is at risk but the point that we would like to make relates to unexpected physical damage caused by cyberattacks. In most businesses now, a large amount of processes and plant are controlled digitally. Not all cyber-attacks are about data, in fact most hacks are about causing disruption to a business. Leaving data aside, what if hackers can access critical pieces of plant and equipment? If that is the case, then we very quickly could have a workplace safety issue on our hands. It is not as if this hasn’t happened already!! 8 years ago, a blast furnace at a German steel mill suffered enormous damage following a cyber-attack. There are dozens of examples out there and all we can advise our clients is that they work with other departments and conduct the appropriate risk assessments, which in turn allow you to put in place the necessary controls such as penetration and vulnerability testing.
12) Christmas Party Risk Assessment!!
This one can be the bane of people’s very existence! In many ways, this is only a headache if your company organises Christmas parties for their colleagues. And of course a lot also depends on company size, as to whether these gatherings are small intimate affairs or large scale events! In any event, the best practice advice is that if a company is organising a Christmas party, you must also conduct a risk assessment. It doesn’t matter if your party is held outside of working hours or not, you still have a duty of care to your employees. You need to start considering matters like safe transportation after the event, the spread of Covid-19, behaviour when alcohol may be consumed, social media permissions etc. Certainly you will need to appoint an event supervisor.
As this isn’t the normal type of risk assessment, you may wish to engage the services of specialist health and safety organisations. As EMS & Associates (Niall Edwards), and Rubikon (Alan Connolly), assisted us in the compilation of this blog, it is only nice to give them a shout out too.
From everyone here at #teamdulann, we wish you all a more Efficient, Compliant and Safer Workplace in 2023, but on a personal level we also wish you a very healthy, happy and peaceful time.
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