It’s important to get the balance right in December. We want people to have fun, to get in the mood for Christmas, and to enjoy coming to work. But we don’t want them to inadvertently create hazards for themselves or their colleagues (for tips on avoiding hazards in the home, see Holiday Hazards: Fire, Lights and Christmas Trees). The HSE is clear on this: there is no ban on Christmas decorations in the workplace.
A little bit of thought about how to manage the process will pay dividends—we don’t need complicated risk assessments (but perhaps it’s worth creating a template risk assessment to pass around to each department so they can decide on the best approach).
Here are a few of the holiday-related hazards to consider, along with some suggested control measures.
If staff are allowed to bring in their own lights, people might buy cheap ones from a market stall or they might have stored the lights in a damp loft or a cupboard next to the cat basket since last December. Damaged lights could result in electrocution, or an electrical fire causing wide-scale damage (learn more about Electricity in the Workplace).
One approach to dealing with this is simply to ban staff bringing in their own lights. But if you do this, be prepared to provide some lights for them or morale could drop.
You could also allow staff to bring in lights, provided they meet a certain standard. For example, newer low-heat LED lights only, not Granny’s old glass bulbs.
A simple control implemented by one of my clients has been to run an assessment in the canteen at lunch time during “light-up” week: all lights must be made available for a competent person to check that they are CE marked and that there is no damage to any of the cables (Christmas lights do not need PAT testing every year). Approved lights are marked up and those that aren't approved are not allowed up. And this is checked as part of other regular housekeeping walkabouts. In addition, the evening security guard has an extra job during December: checking that all the lights are switched off and unplugged at night. RoSPA has advice on Christmas light safety if you want to know more.
Ever been tempted to stand on a chair, desk, or workbench to hang a Christmas tree decoration? That’s how people fall and spend Christmas in plaster (especially if they try this after a lunchtime Christmas drink).
One option is to make a ladder available (see Fall Protection and Ladders). But ladders should only be used in the workplace by people who have had at least some basic training (check out Ladders: Extend Your Reach without Shortening Your Life to learn how to use them properly), so a more effective option might be to offer a decoration hanging service for decorations that are above head height. This also gives you more control over where decorations go, and how they are attached. Think about pins spiking cables or services within the walls, or damaging asbestos-containing materials (see Asbestos 101 for a primer on the dangerous mineral and check out the Top 5 Places You Will Find Asbestos in the Workplace to help you avoid exposure).
And if you use mistletoe, remember that the falling berries can make a mushy slipping hazard on the floor.
Some work environments might have other hazards lurking. For example, can you ensure that decorations hung in a warehouse won’t get snagged when forklift truck forks are at their highest (see Forklift Safety 101 for related advice)? Perhaps limit the decorations to the office and rest areas.
Mistletoe, Christmas trees, wreaths of fresh greenery—Christmas makes us want to bring lots of nature into the office. Watch out, though: real Christmas trees contain pine resin and oil, and usually mold (learn more about this health hazard in Indoor Air Quality: 7 Basic Questions about Moulds). For people with sensitivities, this can create respiratory problems, such as bronchitis and pneumonia, or skin problems for those who handle them. Find out if any staff are particularly sensitive, and don’t put the tree anywhere near their normal place of work.
And don’t think that an artificial tree will automatically overcome the problem. If stored since last year, these may still have mold growing on them. They will also certainly be dusty and could contain house mites, which could bring on asthma attacks in susceptible people.
If you have an artificial tree, make sure it is fire retardant and clean it before you bring it into the workplace. You can hose it down if you have space and the time to get it dry, or at least vacuum it thoroughly to remove the dust.
You might decide to avoid these issues by bringing in contractors. They can provide the decorations, the staff, and the work-at-height equipment, and transform your workplace from serious grey space to festive fun over the weekend when the office is empty.
That’s great, but you still have the responsibility to check that their risk assessments and method statements (RAMS) explain how they intend to control the risk from the electrical, height, and respiratory hazards discussed above and that all their contractor documentation is up to date. If you are already an Effective Software customer, you’ll know how easily that can be managed. If you’re not, perhaps it’s time to put a request in to your workplace Santa?