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Employer-sponsored events: Beware of summer BBQ blunders

company-barbecue-picnicSo don’t get me wrong, I love staff picnics and BBQs as much as anyone and think they are a great opportunity for staff to bond outside of their regular departments and duties.  In fact as HR it is often both my responsibility and pleasure to help plan these events for my organization!  However when you start to think about what can go wrong from an employer responsibility perspective rather than an employee engagement perspective; you begin to wonder if the prospective summer BBQ will balloon into a colossal blunder.

Here are some things your organization should consider to mitigate risks at a summer BBQ event.

Planning and permits

Many workplaces will choose to host the event on their own site both to cut costs and to make the event convenient for all employees. If you are hosting the event in Ontario and plan to have any alcohol at all you will need to get a Special Occasion Permit from the LCBO.   Depending on whether your event is private, public, inside or outside, you will have to apply for the permit from 10-30 days in advance.  If the event is outdoors be prepared with site drawings, measurements of the perimeters, height of fences/shrubs and a proposed gate or barrier to confine the area where alcohol is permitted.  You may also have to notify various municipal authorities.  Your permit has to be available during the event.

Employer liability and alcohol consumption

As an employer serving alcohol to employees you have “Host Liability.”  Host liability was applied to an employer for the first time in 1996 in Ontario according to the OHS Insider.   An employer provided a case of beer to employees doing a job on a hot day.  One of the employees became intoxicated but drove home anyways suffering a debilitating accident on the way.  The employer was charged with “host liability” and was deemed 75 percent responsible resulting in payments of $2.7 million in damages.  To mitigate risks associated with having alcohol available employers should:

  1. Notify employees in advance that intoxication, intoxicated inappropriate behavior and drinking and driving are against company policy and that alternate arrangements for driving will be made if necessary.
  2. Monitor how much employees drink.  Using drink tickets is one of the easiest ways to do this.  You could also designate several people or hire a bartender (with Smart Serve designation) to man the bar.
  3. Monitor when employees can reasonable be assumed to be intoxicated.  This depends on many factors.  Have a procedure and person with authority available to ensure they do not continue to be served.
  4. Help employees avoid intoxication with these tips:
  • Provide plenty of food and alternate non-alcoholic beverages.
  • Do not have drinking games.
  • Stop serving alcohol at least one hour before the end of the event.
  1. Prevent intoxicated guests from driving.  This may involve calling an employee’s spouse or friend for a ride, taking the employees keys away or arranging for a taxi or accommodations so that the employee does not have to drive.

Health and Safety risks of food & fire

Staff BBQs and picnics that don’t serve alcohol still have other risks.

  1. The BBQ grill should be attended at all times by a responsible person.  There are way too many YouTube videos of massive BBQ fails that have my teenage son laughing like a maniac but would not be any fun at a staff BBQ.
  2. Ensure food is stored at the proper temperature for cooking and serving.  Burgers must we well done with no pink!

Bouncy castles, potato sack races and bathing suits

While team building activities and friendly competitions are great, ensure the competitions stay friendly, that races are held on a soft grassy surface (not the parking lot) and that the activities offered are physically safe for the demographics of your employees.  A huge plastic tarp on the side of a hill with a water supply might not be a good idea if the bottom of the hill has a couple big boulders.    Take the time to do a realistic risk assessment of the environment and planned activities.  The last thing anyone wants to take home from a company picnic is a broken leg.

Assess your cultural demographics and ensure that games and presentations are light-hearted and appropriate for your employees.  For example it might not be culturally appropriate to have activities that require costumes or bathing suits.  You want your employees to be relaxed but you may decrease potential harassment and discrimination situations by keeping the atmosphere professional.

Final words

Nothing beats a successful company picnic for helping build that team and family feeling.  It is a great chance for the organization’s management to serve employees, for different departments to mingle and for staff to get to know each other on another level.  So do mitigate the risks but don’t cancel the BBQ!

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Marcia Scheffler

Human Resources Generalist at Wawel Villa
Marcia Scheffler, M.A., CHRP Candidate is a Human Resources Generalist with M.A. working full-time as a Senior HR Officer. She is interested in the intersection of human resources theory and current best practices in HR. Read more
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