In aftermath of KPMG event, how can employers keep workers safe?

'By being proactive and communicating clearly in advance, an employer should be confident they're meeting health and safety obligations,' says lawyer, offering tips for HR

In aftermath of KPMG event, how can employers keep workers safe?

As investigations continue at KPMG New Zealand following two suspected cases of drink-spiking at company events, it’s a timely reminder about the importance of staff safety while nurturing an environment in which people can still feel confident in connecting at social occasions.

News of the cases is distressing for everybody involved, says employment lawyer Andrea Twaddle (pictured above), but it’s especially disheartening coming off the back of Covid, when staff are welcoming the opportunity to have face-to-face interactions again.

“It's really disappointing, because employers do think really carefully about how they provide an opportunity for social interactions between colleagues and their teams, and between their teams and clients, and take a lot of care to plan those so that they foster the organisation's culture,” says Twaddle, director at DTI Lawyers.

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act, employers’ obligations go beyond the workplace, says Twaddle.

“If you are hosting an event such as a social activity or client function, there is a need to have sensible host responsibility,” she says. “As a person conducting a business or undertaking – that’s the PCBU under the Health and Safety at Work Act – an employer has a responsibility to take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure their workers’ health and safety.”

This is relatively straightforward and can be organised in advanced, says Twaddle.

 “It requires an assessment of risks and hazards, looking at what options are available to either eliminate or minimize those, and then ensuring those measures are put in place.”

Take into account risks such as alcohol

The minimal starting point would be considering the practical aspects or hazards associated with a physical venue, she says.

“It is important to take into account risks such as alcohol and in this case [with KPMG], potential drink spiking. In the event where that’s already occurred, I'd suggest the organisation is probably working with police regarding specific advice about drink-spiking. That will involve educating workers for both their own protection but also to be looking out for colleagues.”

This could cover simple things like not leaving drinks unattended, or understanding what the warning signs look like.

Communicating clear expectations regarding worker behaviour well in advance of the event is also advisable, she says.

“This may include identifying who are the ‘responsible’ senior staff overseeing the event, ensuring staff are properly trained around appropriate workplace policies such as harassment and conduct, promote how to raise concerns and who to go to prior or during an event if any concerns arise.”

Other relatively straightforward and practicable steps employers can take, she says, include:

  • somebody being tasked with supervising the event
  • monitoring the supply of alcohol (a sober host scenario)
  • having somebody with first aid experience on site
  • knowing who might intervene if there were concerns during the event
  • making sure in advance of the event that employees know what standards of behaviour are expected, perhaps by providing a reminder in advance or when the invite confirms the event in a person’s calendar
  • making sure food’s available when alcoholic drinks are served and that non-alcoholic options are provided
  • controlling service of alcohol
  • making sure safe transport options are available

“By being proactive and communicating clearly in advance of an event, an employer should be well placed to be confident they're meeting their health and safety obligations,” says Twaddle.  

If an incident occurs, knowing how best to inform other staff members while protecting an employee’s identity can be a challenge. To ensure meeting health and safety obligations to the rest of the team, Twaddle advises having a conversation with the individuals involved and explaining what would be communicated so that everyone feels comfortable about what is discussed.

“It may be that you don't need to name an individual involved, you can simply say, ‘We've had this risk identified and we want to make sure everybody’s alert to it so that we can take steps to keep everybody safe’.”

Personal responsibility with workplace safety

If an employee feels that their workplace hasn’t met their obligations in terms of being a fair and reasonable employer, or met their health and safety responsibilities, they could file a personal grievance claim. WorkSafe has the ability to prosecute if it’s considered there's been a breach of statutory obligations.

There can be flow-on effects too, both internally and externally, says Twaddle.

“There's obviously damage to the culture of a workplace if an employer is considered not to have met their obligations and something goes wrong in the workplace. That can have a huge impact on the workforce and the reputation of the organization.”

There is a degree of personal responsibility too of course, she adds.

“There is an individual responsibility on the worker to take responsibility for their own conduct, and ensure that their behaviour is not a risk to either themselves or to others. But if you're making clear those expectations in advance and you're monitoring your event appropriately, then that risk shouldn’t arise.

“It's simply good faith for employers to be making sure they communicate their expectations with employees. That underlies all of your employment relationships, so therefore a work event is no different in terms of making sure you set people up to succeed.”

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