How Employers’ Haunted House and Fright Night Went Way Wrong

Halloween celebrations can create safety hazards

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. October 30, 2017
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​Workplace Halloween celebrations can be more than just frightful if workers are injured during the festivities. Halloween-related injuries at work happen more than you might think.

Take an employer that set up a haunted house on its premises in a town that did not have one. The Midwest-based financial services company thought that it was being altruistic, but because of the haunted house's poor design, a chainsaw-wielding accountant dressed up as Jason Voorhees from the "Friday the 13th" horror movies chased an intern into a wall and she broke her nose.

If a company is not in the business of running haunted houses, it should think twice before setting one up, cautioned Philippe Weiss, managing director of Seyfarth Shaw at Work in Chicago.

Even if no one is injured, Halloween events at work are sometimes so over the top that they lead to bad public relations. A restaurant that hosted a customer fright night is a case in point. Workers out front dressed up like princes, princesses and Disney characters. But occasionally, the lights would go out and workers with dangling eyeballs and covered in fake blood would emerge and scream at customers, Weiss said. Many of the customers had brought their kids and found the event incredibly disturbing. It was a public relations debacle, Weiss said.

Weiss added that he would even rule out having lit candles or carving pumpkins at work, just to stay on the safe side. Candles have started many fires, and many people have been injured at work while trying to carve pumpkins, he said.

Costume Guidelines

Costumes can also pose safety risks at work, so costume guidelines may be in order.

In manufacturing settings, there's a risk of injuries from long flowing costumes, said John McLafferty, an attorney with Day Pitney in Boston.

Long cloaks or smocks, which are common on wizard or witch costumes, can get caught in machinery, noted Robin Shea, an attorney with Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Sometimes it's the props that accompany costumes that pose a risk. McLafferty noted that an off-duty police officer at one Halloween party accidentally set off a hand grenade that was part of his costume.

An employee who dresses up as a Samurai warrior carrying a real Japanese sword could create a problem for the employer, as the employee or co-workers might be injured. Tell employees not to use genuine weapons as part of their costumes, Shea said.

Injuries sustained at work as a result of Halloween costumes may be compensable under workers' compensation statutes. An Arkansas employer had to pay workers' compensation benefits to an injured employee who fell off a stool after being scared by a co-worker wearing a Halloween mask, McLafferty noted.

He recommended that employers provide employees with costume guidelines. Don't just tell workers to use good judgment, because that's far too subjective a standard. Instead, be as specific as possible. Make it clear that employees can't show too much skin or violate workplace dress codes. Any politically themed outfits or those that mock a certain nationality or culture should be left at home, as they may create hard feelings that last well beyond a Halloween party.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Employee Dress and Appearance]

Shea said employers might want to consider not allowing costumes at work for Halloween. Employees can express themselves by wearing Halloween jewelry or putting a plastic pumpkin with candy on their desks, she said. "If dress-up is really essential for employee morale, then I would recommend that HR issue written guidelines that are as specific as possible," she stated.

Employees who violate the guidelines should be sent home to change, Shea said.

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