Training and coaching: Don’t play with fire

Motivational training days can include some bizarre – and potentially hazardous – activities. From abseiling and quad biking to walking over hot coals, there are hundreds of ways to help fire up your team. However, before you book an awayday for staff, it’s important to assess whether certain activities could result in court action and a trip to A&E instead of a successful team-building exercise.

Events organiser SI Group hit the headlines in January when it was ordered by the courts to pay a fine of more than 7,000 following the injury of a participant on one of its training days. A manager from consulting firm Deloitte suffered burns to her feet following a motivational fire walk over hot coals. During its safety assessment, the events firm failed to take into consideration the pedicure that the victim had done a few days before the event and which led to the burns.

Although such incidents are rare, making the right safety assessments before the event can help prevent them.

Adam Eason, founder of the British Firewalking Association, which promotes benchmarks for training and safety standards, says it is important that participants do not feel pressured into taking part in any activity that could result in injury. He also advises employers to question training providers. “The venue should have adequate space, correct marshalling and must be insured. You should also ask for trainer references,” he says.

All training providers that offer adventure activities as part of their courses in the UK should be licensed under the Adventure Activities Licensing Regulations 2004.

Adrian Vale, technical development manager at the British Safety Council, says: “Licence conditions will ensure the training organisation meets the standards of safety required for the particular event.”

However, any training programme that involves physical activity is potentially hazardous if some employees are not physically or mentally fit enough to join in.

Vale says that training providers cannot be expected to be able to understand the full physical or mental capacity of each delegate. “Reasonable checks should be made before attendance and arrangements agreed at the planning stage about those who may not be suitable,” he says.

Sharing risk

But where does responsibility for safety ultimately lie if something does go wrong?

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), both the employer and trainer have a responsibility.

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (section 2), the site operator has primary responsibility. However, as training events are classed as a work activity, the employer also remains liable for the safety of its employees.

“It is the employer’s responsibility to conduct thorough checks before the event takes place,” says Kathy Halliday, employment law partner at law firm Cobbetts. “The provider’s health and safety policy should be assessed as it is unlikely to cover the risks inherent in a special training event. This should be done in conjunction with checking the trainer’s insurance policy.”

If compensation is granted to an employee, this is where insurance should kick in. “It is therefore essential that sufficient insurance cover is provided by both the employer (employer’s liability insurance) and the training provider (public liability insurance),” says Vale.

And if you think getting employees to sign a disclaimer will mitigate any liability, you’re wrong. The HSE says that organisations cannot contract-out criminal liability, so if a disclaimer is signed it will not provide a defence if a company is prosecuted.

Joanne Martin, associate at employment law specialist John Hardman & Co, says that if injury occurs as a result of the employer’s negligence, then the employer may be liable, regardless of the disclaimer.

“Having said that, disclaimers are still advisable as they can demonstrate that employees have not been coerced to participate in activities in any way,” she says.

In addition to checking a training provider’s health and safety policy, public liability insurance, employee liability insurance and that tutors are accredited and have references, employers should also request a ‘method statement’.

Health and safety expert Nasar Farooq, from business consultancy Croner, says that this is a generic statement that should outline the details of the training to be provided.

“They should also provide a risk assessment that elaborates how the course should be tackled safely by delegates and that confirms that the equipment has been tested,” he says.

It is impossible to prevent every accident, and sometimes employees will be to blame for their own injuries if they act irresponsibly. But if employers sign staff up for adventurous activities, a thorough assessment of risk is vital if they are to keep staff healthy and litigation at bay.

A word of warming

Deloitte is not the first company to see one of its employees injured by a fire-walking activity on a team-building day. In 1998, seven employees from insurer Eagle Star needed hospital treatment after suffering burns from a fire walk when the embers that were supposed to have been glowing were, in fact, burning. Both Eagle Star and the training provider Infinite Breakthrough Technologies escaped prosecution, instead receiving warning letters. However, speaking after the incident to the BBC, Eagle Star spokesman Jeff Wagland said: “We are certainly not complacent about the effect this has had on the company. This is a lesson we are going to learn by. The chances of us doing something like this again are on the far side of zero.”


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