Injury from an April Fools’ prank is no laughing matter

It’s that time of year again; that’s right, this Saturday it might be best to check the toilet bowl for cling wrap before you sit down…

On April Fools’ Day, only one thing is certain – there will be pranks.

It is the one day of the year where pranks and jokes become a focus for most of us; even if you’re not much of a prankster yourself, we all know how easy it is to become the “April fool” of a prank or joke.

Don’t be fooled, we lawyers enjoy making a joke and having a laugh just as much as the next person. We aren’t here to spoil your fun, however there are numerous instances where April Fools’ pranks and workplace practical jokes went terribly wrong, often with devastating and permanent consequences. These cases act as a timely reminder about the importance of rethinking our actions and caring for the people around us – especially in the workplace.

Though many of us who work only Monday through Friday won’t have to fret about what pranks might be around the corner this Saturday on April Fools’ Day, it’s important for those working shift work and weekend jobs to remember that though an April Fools’ prank is about having some light-hearted fun, unexpected consequences can arise and things can get out of hand.

For example, in 2008, a Queensland worker suffered permanent damage to his hearing when, as a prank, a colleague clapped their hands around the worker’s ears after returning from the bathroom with wet hands.  Whilst clearly, the worker’s colleague had not intended to cause him any harm, the resulting effects of the joke were far-reaching and permanent for the worker.

So what kind of pranks can result in serious legal claims?

Well, this is an area that is unfortunately full of examples, usually involving a ‘prank’ which just hadn’t been thought through.

In an incident in Western Australia, a worker sustained serious burns to the left side of his torso after he was sprayed with a flammable cleaning chemical as part of a prank. The worker was unaware that he had been sprayed with the chemical by a fellow worker and continued with the job at hand. Unfortunately for him, the job at hand – welding – caused his clothing to ignite.

The two workers involved in this incident had pranked each other on numerous occasions in the past. Again, there were no malicious intentions in respect of the prank, however it ended in unfortunate and serious injury. The prankster pleaded guilty in court and was fined $6,000 plus costs.

An April Fools’ prank that was sure to back-fire occurred overseas in a Wal-mart. The prankster applied superglue to a toilet seat, which was then stuck to the next unsuspecting loo user. The man who sat on the superglue covered seat had to be taken to hospital for removal and the prankster was left facing second-degree assault charges.

In another incident, in New South Wales, a group of colleagues played a workplace prank on a fellow employee who was due to be married the following day. “During the ‘prank’, [they hit the groom-to-be]… in the groin, tied him to a piece of steel mesh by his hands and legs, threw eggs at him, cut his clothes off, poured fuel in a semi circle in front of [him]… and lit it. During the incident, [the groom-to-be] fell into the fire and was burned”. This prank resulted in the most senior employee on site (who was also the instigator of the incident) receiving a fine of $2,000 along with a criminal conviction. Furthermore, other employees – including people who did not take part in the ‘prank’ but also did not help – were prosecuted and received fines.

Last but not least, an airline employee was targeted by supervisors in a ‘fake arrest’ by real members of the local police force as part of a ‘staff initiation’ in the United States. The ‘fake arrest’ included the new employee being cuffed and gagged in front of customers and other staff. This resulted in the employee suffering serious psychological injures, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

What do pranks in the workplace mean for employers?

It’s not necessarily the case that an employer will be considered ‘at fault’ for a workplace prank gone wrong – it will depend on several factors (many of which will be unique to the incident itself, and an employer’s prior knowledge of a prankster’s behaviour or history of pranks).

However there are some things to consider as an employer to ensure that you are doing all you can to minimise the chances of something going wrong. It’s also important to ensure that everything is handled well in the aftermath of a workplace prank gone wrong.

As an employer, there are a few things to consider:

  • Develop policies and guidelines for your staff to ensure that all employees are aware of their health and safety obligations and encourage them to look out for the safety and wellbeing of others;
  • Quickly respond to and address any concerns raised about pranks or jokes by employees, particularly in instances where there is a known ‘prankster’ among your staff;
  • Ensure all workplace incidents involving pranks or ‘jokes’ are reported and properly documented when they occur, as the effects of an incident may not arise straight away.

Why should you consider putting in place some rules and keeping an eye on potential pranks?

Employers owe a non-delegable duty of care to their employees to keep them safe, coming into or leaving the workplace, while on premises, or otherwise undertaking their work duties – so efforts towards ensuring a safe April Fools could go a long way to avoiding exposure to unnecessary risk of injury or adverse impact to an employee.

What does this mean for workplace ‘pranksters’?

If you’re the ‘prankster’ of your workplace, we encourage you to properly think through any prank you may have planned. For example, it might be useful to think about all the ways your prank could go wrong and if it could result in injury or emotional repercussions to any other person in your workplace.

We would recommend ensuring that you read through any policies or guidelines your employer might have regarding pranks within your workplace – it could be the fact that pranks are not permitted. If your workplace does not permit pranks, it’s important to understand this and take it on board.

It might also be a good idea to discuss any potential pranks you may have planned with a trusted colleague or even your boss – they should be able to help you gauge whether your prank is safe and suitable for your workplace and colleagues.  If your boss is on board, this will reduce your personal exposure to ramifications from a prank gone wrong.

There’s no reason you can’t have some fun with a prank this April Fools’ Day (unless it’s against an employment policy), it’s just important to think it through and ensure it’s safe and fun for everyone involved!

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